The Food Fixers

Weight loss is big business. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as being overweight has a whole range of negative health effects. People who want to lose weight are always looking for food products that won’t make them fat but still taste nice. In response companies produce “light” or “fat reduced” versions of their products. All good so far, but what happens to a product when you take the fat out? You alter the taste and if manufacturers want a product that people will buy they know it has to taste good and so after the fat is taken out something has to be added in. Exactly what is added in has been the subject of new report.

A lot of the time fat reduced food is still high in sugar, so you need to check the label very carefully to see what percentage of your “low fat” product is sugars. Excess sugar can pack on the pounds and have negative health effects of its own. There is a lot more though than sugar which is added to these fat reduced products.

Fat has a feeling in your mouth. In the food industry they use the term “mouth feel” to describe what they are trying to recreate. In the case of fat they have to replicate the fact that it melts in your mouth. They also have to recreate the lubrication, mouth coating, creaminess, and viscosity of fat. This is not done with one substance but a group of substances and the combinations differ from food to food.

The majority of texture creators fall into a category known as hydrocolloids. These substances hold onto, and control the movement of, water in the food. In 2010 1.4 billion kilograms of hydrocolloids were consumed in foods worldwide and the global market for hydrocolloids was worth around six billion US dollars.

Since the demand for low fat products coincides with a yearning for more “natural” foods, most of these texture modifiers come from “natural” sources although they are extracted and modified. The interesting thing is that no new texture modifiers have become available for decades because it is extremely expensive to develop and gain approval for additives to be used in foods. So the providers of these texturisers focus on quirkily differentiating the existing options.

There are ten major texture modifiers that companies will use in varying combinations to create a fatty mouth-feel in their low-fat products.

Alginates are polysaccharides derived from brown seaweeds. They are used for thickening, stabilising, gelling, and film forming in foods such as cream and fruit fillings, salad dressings, ice cream, spreads, processed meats, and yoghurt.

Carrageenans are carbohydrates extracted from red seaweeds. Used for gelling, thickening, and stabilizing, they are often found in ice cream, coffee whiteners, cottage cheese, and low- or no-fat salad dressings. They are also used to suspend cocoa in chocolate milk.

Microcrystalline cellulose is a purified cellulose derived from tree pulp. It forms a stable gel that provides creaminess and cling to salad dressings, sauces, batters, fillings, icings, and low-fat sour cream. It prevents fried foods from becoming soggy and helps stabilize whipped toppings and chocolate drinks.

Methylcellulose and hydroxypropyl methylcellulose are derived from tree pulp. They reduce oil uptake in fried foods and improve the texture of meat alternatives. They can be used to improve the “mouth feel” of sugar-free beverages and reduce milk fat in whipped toppings and desserts. A new use is to help trap air in gluten-free foods.

Cellulose gum, or carboxymethylcellulose, is made from fibres removed from tree pulp and cotton. It helps retain moisture in frozen dough, tortillas, and cakes and reduces fat uptake in doughnuts. It stabilises proteins in protein drinks and replaces texture lost when reducing sugar in beverages. Cellulose gum adds viscosity, flow, and glossy appearance to low-fat sauces.

Gelatin is derived from the collagen in pig and cattle skins and bones. It is used as a gel¬ling agent, stabiliser, thickener, and texturiser in desserts, yoghurt, and low-fat foods.

Guar gum, a polysaccharide, comes from the seeds of the guar gum bush, Cyamopsis tetragonolobus, which is a legume. As a thickener, it is eight times more powerful than cornstarch. It controls moisture and adds texture to baked goods. It also controls viscosity in dairy drinks, salad dressings, and condiments.

Pectin is extracted from the peels of citrus fruits and from sugar beets. It is used for gel¬ling, thickening, and stabilizing food. Pectin derived from sugar beets does not form a gel but is used for stabilizing and emulsifying. Pectin is used in jams, jellies, fillings, and confectioneries. It can also be used to thicken and stabilise fruit and milk based drinks.

Starch is generally derived from corn, potatoes, or tapioca. Food makers use both native and modified versions. Starch can be broken down into dextrins such as maltodextrin. Starches are used as thickeners, stabilisers, and fat replacers in puddings, sauces, and salad dressings. They are often added to grain-based foods such as breads, cereals, tortillas, and pasta.

Xanthan gum is made by industrial fermentation of sugar by the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris. Used in small amounts, it adds viscosity and cling to salad dressings and sauces. It is also used in egg substitutes and in gluten-free baking.

Of all these pectin is growing in use at a great rate. It is finding a place as a replacement for gelatin as consumers look for non-animal origin ingredients.

There you have it, your low fat product could well be coming with “added tree pulp and seaweed” but it unlikely that will be trumpeted on the label.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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