Hydrocolloids as Plant-Based Clean Label Tools

Originally Published: October 6, 2020
Last Updated: February 4, 2021
Bottles of vegan non dairy milk with various nuts on blue background

Hydrocolloids are important components of many food products. With consumers demanding more clean label and plant-based products, what must a food manufacturer consider when choosing a hydrocolloid for a new plant-based product? Nesha Zalesny, MBA, Technical Consultant for the hydrocolloid market research company IMR International, provided practical advice on this topic in her presentation “Hydrocolloids: Clean Label Tools for Plant-Based Formulating,” prepared for the 2020 Clean Label Conference.

With many choices of hydrocolloids available, Zalesny advised considering several key factors, easily remembered with the mnemonic TIPPS: Texture, (other) Ingredients in product, pH, Processing and Shelflife/storage. During her presentation, she applied the TIPPS approach to several plant-based product categories, including plant-based beverages, cultured products, frozen desserts and meat substitutes.

Plant-based “dairy” beverages include beverages that replace milk or milk products with almond, soy, cashew, coconut, hemp, oat and pea ingredients. These products require a texture that is light, creamy and drinkable. Other ingredients in these products include water, vegetable proteins and fats, and they usually have a neutral pH. The products are often ultra-high-temperature (UHT) processed and might be refrigerated or shelf-stable.

Chart presented by Nesha Zalesny, IMR International, on function properties of hydrocolloids in plant based milk.

Click for downloadable PDF

Hydrocolloids used in plant-based beverages include carrageenan, high-acyl gellan gum and locust bean gum. Alternative ingredients gaining momentum in this area include tara, gum acacia, oat fiber and citrus fiber. Carrageenan is used globally, although less so in the U.S., as a cost-effective way to provide suspension and emulsion stability. Carrageenan is very heat-stable, so it can be used in high temperature/short time (HTST) and UHT products, but it is not suitable for retorted beverages. Because it is processed from an underutilized resource (seaweed), carrageenan may be attractive to consumers who appreciate a high employment factor. That is, carrageenan supports the financial well-being of industry workers—many in emerging economies. It’s also of interest to note, said Zalesny, that “many seaweed farms are run by female entrepreneurs.”

Gellan gum, especially the high-acyl form, is a polysaccharide used in nearly all plant-based beverages. The steric hindrance of this polymer’s side chains results in a more fluid gel, providing a clean mouthfeel and good suspension of proteins. The low levels needed compensate for its high cost. However, gellan gum cannot be retorted and, because it may be perceived to be “non-natural,” some consumers view it negatively.

Galactomannans are usually added with gellan gum when formulating plant-based beverages. Galactomannans are polymers with a mannose backbone and galactose side chains positioned along the backbone. Galactomannans with an increased galactose:mannose ratio have a more crystalline structure and lower solubility in cold water.

Locust bean gum works particularly well in plant-based dairy beverages but is relatively expensive. Tara gum is a good alternative as it has a similar chemical structure to LBG, but at less than half the price. For plant-based beverages with added fat, gum acacia can also be used to stabilize emulsions. This is because it has both hydrophilic and hydrophobic characteristics.

As an alternative to gellan gum, oat or citrus fiber are options for plant-based beverages, said Zalesny. Oat fiber especially “can do both,” meaning no additional stabilizers are needed, because manufacturers have “perfected Stoke’s Law: the particle size and density are balanced by the viscosity of the beverage.”

Zalesny also provided troubleshooting tips when using hydrocolloids in plant-based beverages:
• Make sure you use the correct level of hydrocolloid.
• Ensure proper hydration and fill temperature.
• Start with good-quality proteins. Plant particles have a large distribution of particles sizes, so homogenization may be helpful.
• Buffer, buffer and buffer: It will help protect proteins during UHT.

The presentation also provided a description of TIPPS analyses for plant-based yogurts, frozen desserts and meat substitutes. Plant-based meat substitutes, a rapidly expanding market, includes cold cuts or hot products (burgers). For cold cuts, carrageenan (blended with xanthan, locust bean gum, proteins and starches) forms a gel and gives good bite and “sliceability.” In contrast, plant-based burgers utilize methylcellulose, due to its unique characteristic of being insoluble in hot water; this allows a soft, uncooked product to become firmer during cooking, like ground beef. Some plant-based burgers include carrageenan and other proteins (including potato protein) and starches to provide binding before the meat is cooked.

Consumers increasingly are embracing clean label foods, and plant-based foods score high in the “emotional” clean label area (cruelty-free, sustainable, etc.). The use of hydrocolloids as plant-based tools in clean label products is important, just as it is in traditional products. However, in many cases, different hydrocolloids or formulation strategies will be needed. Careful consideration of the product’s desired texture; other ingredients in the formulation; pH of the final product; processing methods; and shipping and storage conditions will assist in choosing the best hydrocolloid for your product.

“Hydrocolloids: Clean Label Tools for Plant-Based Formulating,” Nesha Zalesny, MBA, Technical Consultant, IMR International, nzalesny@hydrocolloid.com

This presentation was given at the 2020 Clean Label Conference. To download presentations from this event, go to https://cleanlabel.globalfoodforums.com/category/clean-label-rd-academy/

See past and future Clean Label Conference Events at https://cleanlabel.globalfoodforums.com/clean-label-events/