Thickeners and stabilizers are one of the most widely used categories of food additives, which are found in products ranging from baked goods to salad dressings to plant-based milks. Xanthan gum is perhaps the best-known thickening and stabilizing agent currently used in the food industry, but in recent years, other types of gums have become increasingly popular with food manufacturers. Today, the ingredient in the spotlight is one of these alternative gums: gellan gum.
What is gellan gum?
Gellan gum is a type of naturally occurring carbohydrate; specifically, it is a microbial exopolysaccharide, or a long chain of carbohydrate-based molecules. Produced through bacterial fermentation, it is chemically similar to food products like flour and starch, which are used to bind ingredients together.
How is gellan gum made?
Gellan gum is produced through the fermentation of the bacterial strain Sphingomonas elodea. When given a sugar source to consume, these bacteria convert the nutrients into the large polysaccharide molecules of gellan gum. While the production of gellan gum can and does occur naturally, the gellan gum used in today’s food industry is made at large scale using commercial fermentation processes. Once the fermented mixture is produced, it is filtered and dried to make powdered gellan gum, which can then be used in foods, beverages, and other products.
How long has gellan gum been used as an additive?
Gellan gum was discovered in the late 1970s by food researchers who noticed that the substance grew naturally on lily pads (later research confirmed that lily pads are home to Sphingomonas elodea). It was first approved for use in food in 1988 and received full approval from the FDA in 1992. The company Kelco was responsible for the discovery of and much of the development work associated with gellan gum. The company, now known as CP Kelco, remains the world’s leading producer of gellan gum products for food and industrial use.
Why is gellan gum used in foods?
Gellan gum’s unique chemical structure allows it to create fluid, gel-like solutions. The use of gellan gum in foods and other products has many purposes. It helps to prevent ingredients from settling or separating, creates a stable texture by binding ingredients together uniformly, gives foods elasticity and structure, and helps to prevent ingredients from changing form as a result of temperature changes. For example, gellan gum is frequently used in nut-based milks to give the liquid extra texture and creaminess, as well as to stabilize the solution and prevent the different ingredients in it from separating.
What are some of the advantages of gellan gum?
Although gellan gum has not been around as long as other types of gums, such as xanthan gum, it has become very popular in recent years because of several unique qualities:
It can be used in small quantities—One of the main reasons why gellan gum has become so widely used is that, compared with other thickeners, it is much more efficient in small amounts. For example, gellan gum is often used as a replacement for agar, another thickening and stabilizing additive, as it takes only about half the amount to produce the same effect.
It is temperature stable—Gellan gum can withstand higher temperatures while maintaining a consistent viscosity. In other words, it won’t melt in warm temperatures. This makes it ideal for use in products like ice cream and sorbets, as it helps them to remain creamy and solid long after they’re taken out of the freezer. Similarly, chefs sometimes use gellan gum in cold desserts that are broiled or browned under a flame, like crème brulee.
It is vegan friendly—Because gellan gum is produced from bacterial fermentation and does not involve any type of animal product, it is suitable for use in vegetarian and vegan foods. Depending on the specific products it is used in, gellan gum can be used in kosher and halal diets.
Is gellan gum safe?
Over the last 30 years, gellan gum has been extensively studied, tested, and proven safe for use in foods. The first country to approve gellan gum for food use was Japan, which granted approval for the additive in 1988. Since that time, many other countries and entities, including the United States, the European Union, and the World Health Organization, have evaluated gellan gum and approved it as a safe food additive.
Why is gellan gum sometimes criticized?
Some people believe that because it is a bacterially derived product, gellan gum can alter healthy levels of the body’s intestinal bacteria and/or can contribute to digestive difficulties. However, it’s important to understand that no scientific research to date supports these claims. On the contrary, one small study conducted by the University of Edinburgh found that high levels of gellan gum ingestion over a prolonged period of time caused no adverse dietary or physiological effects.