What makes gelatin snacks jiggle? How does the chocolate in my chocolate milk not sink to the bottom? If any of these questions ever crossed your mind, you have already been exposed to the wonders of hydrocolloids!
Hydro–what-oids? Hydrocolloids. They are the jiggle of your gelatin snacks and the whip in your cream.
By definition, hydrocolloids are a colloid (particle) mixed in water (hydro). These particles are what provide the right viscosity, texture or structure to many foods you likely consume on a daily basis.
Hydrocolloids come from a wide range of food sources including seaweed and orange peels and are deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They are often referred to as gums, gels or thickening agents, each classification adding distinct benefits to foods.
An example of a gum in food is locust bean. You have likely seen it on a yogurt ingredient list. Locust bean gum is used to stop water from separating out of yogurt.
A common gel used in chocolate milk is carrageenan. Carrageenan (made from seaweed) is used to keep cocoa suspended. For thickening, look no further than gravies and salad dressings. The labels will show guar or xanthan gum, which helps stiffen each of these foods to the perfect viscosity.
In addition to these familiar properties, hydrocolloids add a lot more to foods: pH stability, edible films (ice cream cone wrappers) and even edible packaging are all possible thanks to hydrocolloids.
Some hydrocolloids deserve significant credit for their incredible use in foods. Carrageenan, the previously mentioned savior of chocolate milk, is one of those. Carrageenan is a cold-soluble hydrocolloid, meaning it can form gels at lower temperatures. Carrageenan keeps your beer a beautiful golden color by removing the haze in beer caused by proteins in the grain. Carrageenan also helps water retention and binding for products like lunch meat.
Xanthan gum is another fascinating hydrocolloid that has several unique traits. Xanthan gum is naturally derived from microbial fermentation of starch. When used alone, it doesn’t contribute much thickening or gelling; however, when it is combined with other hydrocolloids like locust bean gum, it forms strong gels. It is a top choice for dairy and salad dressing for its acid stability and in frozen desserts where it imparts a ‘melt-in-the-mouth’ texture. Xanthan has also become increasingly useful in the past few years with the rise of gluten-free pastries as it aids in mimicking the texture and leavening of the missing wheat flour.
From marshmallows to marmalades, hydrocolloids are effective in giving foods the proper form. If you are wondering what hydrocolloids might be in your foods, take a peek at the label; they will always be listed as an ingredient. Their wide range of functionality is why they are included in so many different products. The next time you are enjoying a creamy cup of yogurt or the perfect gooeyness of a creamy dip, know that hydrocolloids are there for you!