Inside the guar gum bubble

by Jeff Gelski
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The oil industry’s increased use of guar gum has driven up its price, leaving food and beverage processors struggling to find supply of the ingredient used in such applications as ice cream and tortillas. Xanthan gum, locust bean gum, tara gum and even flaxseed are showing promise as alternatives to guar gum.

“The market has basically tripled over the past year,” said Chris Freeman, functional systems and hydrocolloids product manager in the Americas for Cargill Texturizing Solutions.

Prices of food grade guar gum, normally below $1 per lb, have risen above $2.50 per lb because of the oilfield industry’s use of guar gum, according to a July 28 “Hydrocolloid News” e-mailed report from IMR International, a hydrocolloid consulting company. According to the report, buyers of food grade guar gum are facing prices of more than $5.75 per kilogram ($2.61 per lb), delivery times of four to six months and, in some cases, demands to pay in advance.

“The guar situation has reached dire circumstances,” the report said. “Unless there is a paradigm shift in technology for the oilfield industry or a shift in policy away from hydraulic fracturing, there is no end in sight for the current guar shortage. In the meantime, both producers and users of food guar are scrambling to find substitutes or extenders to guar.”

The oil industry always has used guar gum and started using a much larger volume in 2010 because of horizontal drilling techniques in shale gas and oil formations, said Dennis Seisun, founder of San Diego-based IMR International. Guar gum comes from plants, most of which are grown in India and Pakistan, he said.

“Basically the oil people are big buyers, big spenders,” he said. “They go to the guar suppliers and say, ‘What’s your price, and give me all you got.’ The food industry is getting left behind.”

Before this year, the previous high of $1.48 a lb for food grade guar gum came in 1998. Now in the summer of 2011, food grade guar gum prices are running $2.50 to $3 a lb, Mr. Seisun said.

Food manufacturers use guar as a thickening, texturizing, moisture-binding and freeze-thaw stabilizing agent, said Joshua Brooks, vice-president of sales for Gum Technology Corp., Tucson, Ariz.

“It builds viscosity rather quickly and is all-natural,” he said. “It also synergizes with other gums such as xanthan gum. Therefore, when pricing was lower, it was a great choice for a formulator — a go-to hydrocolloid.”

Guar gum is a viscosifier commonly used in beverages, baked foods, dairy products, a range of desserts, and dressings and sauces, said Lorna Macfadyen, North America technical director for Cargill Texturizing Solutions. Guar gum typically is used at 0.2% in applications, she said. Its use, depending on the application, may be as high as 1% and as low as 0.1%.

Xanthan gum and locust bean gum are somewhat similar to guar gum, she said, and added a mixture of those two gums may replace guar gum in dressings.

Mr. Brooks said, “Tara gum is quickly becoming a viable alternative to guar for R.&D. formulators as the cost of guar approaches tara in the $3 a lb range. Tara is similar to guar in that it may be used in cold processing. When heated, it builds viscosity. It binds moisture and is excellent for freeze thaw stability. It is more versatile than guar in creating smoother, silkier textures.”

He added, “Tara gum synergizes with xanthan gum, konjac and carrageenans to create a variety of textures and gel formations. Historically, tara pricing has been very stable.”

Glanbia Nutritionals, Fitch-burg, Wis., promotes its OptiSol 5000 flaxseed ingredient as an alternative to guar gum since OptiSol 5000 provides such hydrocolloid benefits as moisture-control, shelf-life extension and viscosity generation.

“It is not typically a 1:1 replacement for guar,” Glanbia Nutritionals said. “We have found that the optimal level of OptiSol 5000 to be added to a formulation is between 1% to 2.5%, depending on the application.”

How long the guar gum bubble lasts may depend on the oil industry, Mr. Seisun said.

“I don’t see it bursting in the immediate future,” he said.

Mr. Freeman of Cargill said he does not know when guar gum prices may fall.

“It’s hard to tell,” he said. “It’s uncharted territory. We’ve never seen the guar market like this.” 


Use hydrocolloids to save on costs

Innovations in hydrocolloids offer potential processing savings for food and beverage manufacturers.

For example, TIC Gums, White Marsh, Md., now offers the TicaPan coating system product line for panning candy, gum, nuts and other confections. The TicaPan system provides an alternative to formulators who want to avoid the price swings of acacia gum, also known as gum Arabic, which is sourced from Africa.

“Because of the geography and historical instances of regional turmoil, gum Arabic has always been difficult to source,” said Harold Nicoll, marketing manager for TIC Gums. “It is often subject to unstable pricing, with supplies sometimes impacted by political stability or even weather.”

The TicaPan 311 coating system works as a drop-in replacement for acacia gum, he said. It may be used as a binder for sugar and sugar-alcohol syrups used in hard and soft confection coating. TicaPan 311 has comparable crystallization, binding and viscosity properties to acacia gum.

For another potential cost-saving option, Gum Technology Corp., Tucson, Ariz., offers the Coyote brand GumPlete systems, which use both gums and starches to create a stabilizing system that reduces overall hydrocolloid use levels. The starches and gums work synergistically with each other. The systems result in a high viscosity. The lower use level of starch minimizes flavor-masking effects, which allows for a reduction in the amount of flavorings needed. Potential applications, depending on the system used, include ice cream, yogurt, protein-based beverages, reduced-sugar or reduced-fat desserts, sauces, gravies, soups and baked foods.

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