When science and food gel

By Susan Birks

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Ice cream, Heston blumenthal

When science and food gel
Gums, starches and all manner of gelling agents can help manufacturers meet key convenience and indulgence trends as well as cut costs. Susan Birks reports on new product ideas to be had from tweaking food textures

For centuries chefs have made use of some odd physical phenomena that can take place when treating food in a certain manner. For example, turning liquid fruit into set jam, thickening sauces with starch and whisking cream into foams. Such techniques add elements of convenience, improved mouthfeel or simply new texture to improve our experience of food.

It is a process that continues daily in the industry as ingredient technologists seek to produce creamier products, more indulgent mouthfeel or to improve freeze/thaw stability and increase water retention. Such characteristics are achieved using a variety of substances that gel (hydrocolloids) or that form stable foams or emulsions (emulsifiers).

But manufacturers could learn a thing or two from chefs who are championing the development of ingredient science and texture. Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal, for example, has built a reputation on blending science and gastronomy to create unconventional textures and flavour combinations.

With his degustation menu Blumenthal has taken ideas created in the laboratory and turned them in to an amazing culinary experience at his restaurant the Fat Duck in Bray; dishes such as beetroot and orange gels with mismatched colours, mango and Douglas fir puree or sardine-on-toast sorbet.

Blumenthal's fascination with the science behind taste and texture, has led him to support a new PhD project being run by the University of Nottingham. He hopes the project will take fundamental scientific ideas, such as the study of hydrocolloids, out of the university and translate the concepts into products that can be delivered in the restaurant.

He's not the only restaurant chef to come up new ways of presenting flavours and texture. The concept of vegetable foams (Espumas in Spanish) that can be dispensed from a spray-can has been pioneered by the likes of top Spanish chef Ferran Adrià. It is an idea that gelatin-producer Gelita believes could easily be developed for retail.

In describing just such a concept, Gelita spokesman Oliver Wolf describes how consumers would be able to take a can from the fridge, simply shake and spray the vegetable foam just like spray-cream. He says that with the aid of gelatin numerous ingredients could be converted into light and delicate foam -- vegetables, fruits, even Campari and orange for use as an aperitif.

Gelita has spent time recently dreaming up other innovative product concepts using gelatin. It is, after all, the ingredient that brought us the now familiar but once innovative texture of jelly. By going back to the drawing board Gelita has come up some surprising, fun and healthy product concepts.

New product ideas

Mousse It Up, for example, is an instant dessert powder packaged in a single-serve plastic pot. "When the consumer wants a tasty dessert in the office, all they have to do is remove the lid, add water to a mark indicated on the pot, mix ... and a light fruity mousse dessert appears," says Wolf.

The powdered product has a long shelf-life, is easily transportable and does not need refrigeration so can be used anywhere. The base mix can be pre-flavoured, or be without flavour so that the consumer could flavour it as they want by mixing with fruit juice.

Wolf adds the dessert has the benefit of containing very little carbohydrate, fat or calories. Even the sugar could be replaced by sweeteners, making it a healthy dessert-to-go. The concept can also be tailored to instant yoghurt desserts by adding yoghurt powder.

It is when product norms are challenged that some of the best innovations arise. Jam Slices, for example, is a concept that Gelita produced simply by tweaking the formula of a fruit gel to give a firm consistency that can be packaged in a casing like sausage meat or pate. When required the jam can be sliced with a knife and placed on toast, where the warmth melts it, releasing a wonderful fruit aroma.

Then there is soft chocolate candy that tastes of chocolate, but is a firm gel designed to melt in the mouth like ice cream. This product idea could be flavoured as white chocolate, dark chocolate or cappuccino and moulded into any shape.

Better yet is Jelly Juggler -- an alternative to the ice cream bar. This solid gel in lollipop form doesn't melt at room temperature but does at body temperature, so it can be packaged and eaten like an ice cream but doesn't need to be kept in the freezer.

"This could have all the benefits of being a low-carb, low-fat, low-sugar treat," says Wolf.

savoury snacks

The company's new ideas are not limited to desserts and confectionery. It has produced a savoury snack, using gelatin and collagen hydrolysate, in a variety of flavours such as tomato, Tabasco, spinach, carrot, nut or curry.

Here again the snack would be low in carbohydrate, fat and calories but could contain valuable plant components making it a convenient alternative to vegetables.

Another savoury concept is a vegetable garnish that looks like vermicelli or noodle strips, but instead of pasta is made from strips of jellied vegetable puree. Flavoured in tomato, Tabasco, carrot, spinach, peppers or herbs, on serving or eating the strips would melt away releasing aroma and flavour. Packaged in a carton like noodles, they could make a visually attractive low-calorie, time-saving garnish and seasoning for cold or hot dishes.

Such imaginative developments need not be restricted to gelatin. Similar products could be developed using other plant-based gelling agents such as gum arabic, locust bean gum, guar gum, or those derived from seaweeds (carrageenan and alginates).

Innovation is equally likely with those texture agents produced by chemical modification of cellulose (now legally labelled as cellulose gum instead of the unwieldy carboxymethyl cellulose), or through microbiological fermentation -- such as with xanthan gum. Each has its own specific characteristics and benefits.

Not all texture innovations being developed are so immediately visible to the consumer. For example, the trend for convenience has produced a large market for pre-sliced, pre-packed meat and many companies are producing less noticeable ingredients that nevertheless retain the succulence of the fresh cut product but extend product life.

Degussa, for example, offers both refined carrageenans and the less refined Processed Euchema Seaweed (PES)-based ingredients, which are somewhat cheaper, for injecting in to meat to improve the texture, prevent synerisis and extend shelf-life.

In the ambient products and bakery sector meanwhile, starches developed by the likes of Cerestar and National Starch can create new textures, improve flow properties or provide emulsion stability in a wide range of foods from soup to pie fillings. More importantly they can help bakers cut costs. The latest generation of cold-water swelling starches, for example, offer bakers significant time and energy savings through the use of cold rather than hot processes.

Many of these functional ingredients now have an added role to play -- that of improving the nutritional profile of products. New pressures to cut obesity mean manufacturers are looking to replace fat and sugar which have traditionally provided good texture and mouthfeel with less energy dense ingredients.

The vegetable fibres produced by International Fiber under the Just Fiber brand, for example, provide water binding and emulsion stabilising properties in addition to all the nutritional benefits of dietary fibre. Omya which markets the Just Fibre brand in the UK says the longer fibre grades in particular contribute a creamy mouthfeel to products such as smoothies and other beverages.

Many of the above mentioned ingredients can help to reduce calories, add fibre or maintain strong bones and healthy joints, making products indulgent but healthy too. FM

key contacts

  • Cerestar00 32 15 400 411
  • CP Kelco00 1 312 554 7822
  • Degussa 00 33 1 71 00 4500
  • Gelita UK01565 631630
  • National Starch 0161 435 3200
  • Omya 01909 543 317*
  • University of Nottingham 0115 951 6144

Related topics: Ingredients, Healthy foods

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