Guar Gum: Price Hikes and Alternatives

April 13, 2012

How a non-food application is taking all the guar gum business.

Not long ago, guar gum was considered one of, if not the most, cost-effective gums for the food and beverage industries. Its uses for thickening, moisture retention, and mouthfeel made it a contender in many processed foods.

Too bad for food and beverage manufacturers that guar is now turning out to be the ideal fracking hydrocolloid.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a process of injecting fluids at high pressure into the Earth to coax natural gas and oil out of otherwise unreachable reservoirs. Even in the face of environmental opposition, the practice of fracking is expanding in the United States, with ongoing governmental approvals and the recent advent of horizontal fracking (previously, fracking was only performed through vertical drilling).

Fracking’s use of guar gum as a suspending agent has farmers of the legume (Cyamopsis tetragonolobus) understandably eager to sell their gum to deep-pocketed oil companies, which are now using an estimated 250,000 to 350,000 tons of guar annually compared to 60,000 to 80,000  tons in the food space. As expected, the oil industry is even absorbing a price hike.

Historically, the food industry has paid anywhere between 50 and 90 cents/lb for guar gum, according to Dennis Seisun, founder and president of IMR International (San Diego), a resource center and conference organizer for the hydrocolloids market. But by today, guar gum may price at as much as $6/lb or even higher (it’s actually over $7/lb as of the end of February)-a healthy sum for any farmer in India, where the majority of guar gum is produced.

“At these prices, everybody and their cousin in India will try to grow guar,” says Seisun. “I expect production will increase in India, but the demand will continue to exceed supply, so the high prices we have today are likely going to be with us through at least the next farming season.”

In lieu of a cheap guar, formulators must now seek out replacement hydrocolloids. But not every ingredient will fit every need. Cold-water solubility, pH response, and flavor impact are just a few factors dependent on each alternative ingredient.

Hydrocolloid suppliers specialize in this sort of puzzle and should be able to assist any formulator in making the difficult switch from guar. “Formulators are going to take losses on a lot of their products until they can switch over,” says Josh Brooks, vice president of sales for the hydrocolloid supplier Gum Technologies Corp. (Tucson, AZ). “But in the same family as guar gum-the galactomannan family-tara gum, fenugreek gum, and even locust bean gum may be good alternatives. Since these are all galactomannans, they can behave similarly, but it’s all formulation-specific and application-specific. We work on the technical side with formulators and work them through this process.”

With a hand from gum specialists, your future without guar may be easier than    anticipated.

Flax Gum?

The guar crisis is already opening up business for some unusual replacement ingredients, including chia seed (Salvia hispanica) gel, exclusively supplied by BI Nutraceuticals (Long Beach, CA)-and even flax seed (Linum usitatissimum).

Put flax into water, and a gelling process will be visible in a matter of minutes. This ability of flax is part of what led to the Optisol 5000 series, a line of hydrocolloid-like milled flax seed from Glanbia Nutritionals (Fitchburg, WI).

We’re not quite sure as to how Optisol ensures gelling quality unlike normal flax seed-it’s proprietary-but it may also have to do with the protein and fiber qualities inherent to flax. Beyond being a novel idea for gum replacement, the line benefits from consumer recognition of flax and its omega-3 content.

Glanbia says that the Optisol 5000 series has wide applications, but it’s especially suitable for baked goods. The grainy taste of flax should lend well to a baked good-even more so to a gluten-free product looking to gain back that grain flavor.