Reader Erin, responding to a remark I made about the packaged food industry being hot for hydrocolloids, wonders why exactly that is, particularly when so many food makers are under pressure to take the science-y sounding ingredients off their product labels. Pretty cool question. The answer is that thickeners and texture-enhancers, which are what hydrocolloids are, are eternally in demand among food makers, especially in an age when “special diet” products rule. It is, ironically, the demand for healthier foods that is driving the market in hydrocolloids. Not that I believe hydrocolloids are unhealthy mind you, but they are certainly perceived that way by a lot of people.
So why is it the case that special diet — low-fat, low-sugar, gluten-free, dairy-free — products drive demand for hydrocolloids (and a lot of other stuff)? Because, quite simply, when you remove an ingredient as elemental as sugar, fat or gluten from a product it’s like removing one of its vital organs…and it takes a lot to make up for it. Sugar, for example, does a lot more than make things sweet. It binds up moisture and that makes the whatever-it-is moist. Take it away and put a zero-calorie sweetener in its place and you lose that moisture. Enter xanthan gum, guar gum, carrageenan or some other gelling agent that will retain that lost moisture in the sugar’s stead.
The same is true of fat, though fat-free products present an even greater problem. For fat not only adds richness which creates what food makers call satiety (the feeling of fullness) it’s a flavor carrier, texture enhancer, moisture retainer and shelf life extender. Take it away and you’ve got a job on your hands putting all those characteristics back. But you can come pretty darn close with hydrocolloids of the kind l mentioned just above. Gluten? Well, we bakers pretty much know the answer to that one. You need some sort of gum in the mix to create elasticity in the dough, elasticity that will capture and hold bubbles that make the bread rise.
I should add that hydrocolloids are also hot among modernist cooks, who employ them to create all sorts of interesting and oddball foods. However they’re a drop in the bucket compared to the worldwide market for prepared foods. Every time a new dietary fad comes along, one that’s large enough to create a decent-sized market, food developers go shopping for ingredients that will satisfy the demands of that market. Hydrocolloids usually rank at the top of the shopping lists. Thanks very much for the question, Erin, that was fun to answer!