By Dennis Seisun *
“Hydro – WHAT???”, is usually the response when I tell friends, family and even strangers about the field I’ve worked in for the last 38 years. “Hydrocolloids”, I say, “You’ve probably already eaten some today at breakfast and will probably eat some more at lunch and follow up with a dinner containing hydrocolloids. Your food wouldn’t be the same without them”. “Hydro-Kolloooid!!”, they reply. “That sounds so chemical. I hate what these food companies are putting in my food. All these additives and E-numbers. Why can’t they give me just plain, unprocessed, wholesome and natural foods?” The answer is long and complicated. Most consumers don’t have the time or willingness to hear the full story. It’s easier for them to come to a rapid conclusion based on limited information from superficial sources. My good friend and “Hydrocolleague”, Ross Campbell, CEO of Cybercolloids, was once confronted by a shopper at a Sainsbury’s supermarket who, looking at a food label, turned to him and said “Don’t you hate all these chemicals they put into our food.” I still chuckle and often quote Ross’ off the cuff reply, “Madam, you too are full of chemicals”. And so are you, dear reader, full of chemicals, just as I am, and so is every human on this planet. We’re all “full of chemicals”. Everything on earth, living or not, is a chemical. So, why the consumer concern? Probably it is a case of fear of the unknown and a general suspicion of all processed food. Consumers, until recently, had little knowledge or interest regarding food ingredients and food additives. There has, however, been a paradigm shift in this respect. We are living in an era of dissemination of information (or MIS-information), that is unparalleled in the history of communication. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and countless others have become key information sources. They have also allowed “Instant Experts” to be created, often with little or no in-depth knowledge. Aside from online messaging, television, radio and even print forms of communication, are full of hyperbole and exaggeration. Lost is any logic, rationale or scientific evidence in a position held. Consumers develop their custom source of expertise which is often no more than a social media platform or a friend or relative with a “Hot Health Tip”.
This confusion and mis-information at the consumer level is one that the food industry must now learn to deal with. The only consolation for hydrocolloid producers and users is, that they are in the same boat along with suppliers and users of colours, flavours, preserving agents, emulsifiers and any other component of a food formulation. They all face the same gamut of challenges posed by evolving consumer perceptions (or MIS-perceptions). For the hydrocolloid world, gone are the days when the major considerations for a hydrocolloid supplier and food formulator were technical and economic. In the old days, viscosity, suspension, gelation, yield value, and of course cost in use, were key to the selection and use level of a given hydrocolloids. Now, those same factors remain important but have been overtaken by issues that could not have been dreamt of some 38 years ago when I joined the fascinating world of hydrocolloids.
Let’s deal with some of the issues from a consumer’s perspective, one whose ideal food should be “Just plain, wholesome, unprocessed and natural”. A plain food, be it vegetable, animal or mineral, is likely to be just that, plain and tasteless. That is why most food is served in a combination of several ingredients on a plate or in a formulation. Remember the adage of “eat a balanced diet”. Wholesome, is a blurry term with a different meaning to different persons. In extreme cases, what is wholesome to one may be literally lethal to another… think allergies. The desire for “unprocessed” food is, at best not practical and at worst, laughable. Simply washing a food can be considered a process and even an essential one in keeping food clean and safe. Sterilising, pasteurising and other ways of eliminating contaminants are critical to food safety. Home cooked food is, of course, also processed. It may be boiled, poached, fried, baked, barbecued and even beaten (whipped) to prepare according to a recipe. We should bear in mind, that the process of home cooking is far less controlled and accurate than an industrial process. Temperature, time, pressure and sterility are all better controlled in an industrial environment with costly control measures and equipment. Frying a food at home, for example, may be at a higher than optimal temperature for a longer or shorter than recommended period. Barbecuing can yield burnt food and burn-off compounds that are absorbed in the food being barbecued. Industrial processors are able to control and reproduce ideal cooking conditions in a way that home cooks can simply not match. The recently evolved search for “natural food” poses perhaps the most difficult conundrum to the food processors and food ingredient suppliers. In a nutshell, the problem is that, there is NO definition of what is natural and what is not. No authoritative agency such as EFSA, FDA, JECFA or USDA has found it possible to establish rules and guidelines by which the term “natural” can or cannot be used on a food label. With no restrictions applied, some food companies are using (maybe ABusing) the term. Efforts are ongoing to develop a definition which can serve as a guideline for enforcement.
So what can be done to address these growing concerns of consumers? Sadly, most of the knowledge that consumers have about hydrocolloids is supplied by highly uninformed sources that have an outsized influence on consumer opinion. Bloggers and publishers purporting to be consumer advocates are, in reality, more interested in “online clicks and sales of books, magazines or newsletters”. The more sensational the message, the more attention grabbing it is. To counter this trend, hydrocolloid users and suppliers should take on the task of message creation and delivery to consumers. Most hydrocolloids are superbly situated for a consumer message and image building campaign by suppliers and users. There are several nutritional and nutraceutical properties of hydrocolloids that are barely known by consumers. Another strategy would be to make consumers familiar with the use of hydrocolloids in the kitchen. The term “pantry popularity” was coined by IMR several years ago. It is no wonder that consumers are comfortable with starch, gelatin and pectin. All three are commonly found in most kitchens and have been used in home cooking. Gelatin as an animal derived hydrocolloid faces some dietary restrictions but is otherwise an OK ingredient found in many pantries. Other hydrocolloids are “pantry popular” in other parts of the world. For example gum arabic (acacia) in the Middle East and konjac and agar in Asia.
In this day and age of consumer activism, one image building factor that has not been given the attention it deserves is that of a concept developed by IMR several years ago, the Employment Factor of Hydrocolloids. Essentially, the concept involves estimating the number of individuals or families that are employed in the production of a unit value of each hydrocolloid. Some hydrocolloids provide employment to hundreds of times more persons than other hydrocolloids. The below table considers a sample of five hydrocolloids. Guar gum employs the most persons per dollar’s worth of guar gum sold according to the following table:
If xanthan is taken as an employment reference point, then guar employs about 430 times more persons based on a unit value. Carrageenan employs 150 times more persons and gum arabic 220 times more persons. The production of xanthan gum is highly automated at industrial facilities whereas acacia, carrageenan and guar rely on large number of farmers and harvesters to supply the raw material. The number of persons employed per the above table can be multiplied by a factor of two or three if one considers family members and associated activities. With the growing importance of label declarations and consumer perceptions, these hydrocolloids are ripe for the creation of an image of sustainability and social responsibility.
*The Author: Dennis Seisun is President of IMR International based in San Diego, USA and organizer of the Food Hydrocolloid Conference, this year in Lisbon, Portugal.