Food Thickeners, Gums & Waxes


Guide to gums, waxes, and food thickeners

Average read time: 8 minutes

The food manufacturing industry in the U.S. consists of over 615,000 businesses and employs over 12 million workers . These people work to provide sustenance that is flavorful and safe. The manufacturing process encompasses how to produce the food in bulk, how to ensure the recipe remains homogenous and consistent, how to package the food for easy retrieval and use, and much more.

Some of the ingredients that are most useful in the food manufacturing industry include waxes, thickeners, and gums. These are all safe and effective, playing important roles in the manufacture of food, but many people know little about them. Learn about how each one enhances the food manufacturing process, and reach out to Brenntag North America Food and Nutrition to learn more.

While most people are familiar with wax paper and other food contact materials, wax is also commonly found on and in foods. This invisible, odorless, and tasteless coating can cover several types of foods, including fruit, vegetables, cheese, and candy. Wax is commonly used for:

  • Moisture Control: Wax is naturally hydrophobic, making it a good moisture barrier. It can protect dry food from environmental moisture and reduce moisture loss in water-filled foods like fruits and vegetables.
  • Aesthetics: Wax coatings create a shiny finish that looks attractive on fruits, vegetables, and candies. Additionally, wax coatings provide a type of surface support, helping foods like candies retain their shape.
  • Protection: Fruits and cheeses are coated in wax to protect their surfaces from degradation and contamination during the transport and handling processes. They also help to preserve the odor, taste, and nutritional value of the food.

The use of food waxes is hardly new to the food industry. Edible films were used as early as the 1100s in China as a way to preserve oranges as they were transported from one region to another, and European merchants employed hog fat for centuries to preserve fruit in a similar way. Today's waxes are more sophisticated than these but use similar principles.

Food-grade waxes come from several sources, and all are safe to add to foods. Food waxes come in three primary types:

  • Parrafin Wax: Paraffin waxes are derived from petroleum, synthesized through a refining and distillation process to create a solid mixture of saturated hydrocarbons. Additives may also be mixed into the recipe, like plasticizers and waterproofing agents. To ensure quality, paraffin waxes are closely regulated to ensure that they meet certain standards and do not contain harmful components.
  • Natural Wax: Natural waxes come from natural materials like beeswax, soy wax, candelilla wax, shellac from the female Lac bug , and carnauba wax from the Brazilian carnauba palm. These waxes may require additional bleaching and processing in order to remove any natural color or taste, and the final product is consistent and safe to use.
  • Blended Wax: Depending on the application, synthetic and natural waxes may be mixed together to achieve specific properties. For example, grafting wax is primarily made of beeswax and includes several other ingredients to lower its melting point so it can be molded by hand.

These waxes are safe to add to our foods for two primary reasons. First, waxes do not transfer chemicals onto food. Second, eating waxes will not cause you to absorb any components within the wax because humans cannot digest wax — it passes through the digestive system untouched, without the digestive system breaking down or absorbing any of the wax's components.

One of the most commonly used waxes in the food industry is paraffin wax, which Brenntag supplies along with candelilla wax, carnauba wax and rice bran wax. Paraffin wax is a petroleum-derived wax employed throughout the food industry, especially in food packaging.

This type of wax is used as a preservative coating on fruits and vegetables and is also found in the hard wrappers of hard cheeses. Manufacturers rely on it for several types of candy. They add paraffin to chocolate to help it remain solid at room temperature while also giving it a glossy finish. They also create hard coatings for candies with paraffin to help retain the candies' shapes. Cured sausages also get coated with paraffin wax to give them added luster.

The primary purpose of a thickener is exactly what it sounds like — adding thickening agent to a food will thicken any fluids in the food without substantially altering other properties like taste. This is only the beginning of what thickeners can do for food. Thickeners also can achieve the following food properties:

  • Texture: Thickeners change the texture of foods they are added to, reducing the fluidity of the food and adding a silkiness to make it more palatable.
  • Handling: Thickeners can improve food structure, making it easier to extrude food from containers or manipulate food through the manufacturing process.
  • Consistency: Thickeners can make foods more consistent in texture and taste, preventing the settling of ingredients so that manufactured food comes out uniform.
  • Adhesion: Thickeners can act as adhesives in the processing of proteins like fish and meat, keeping meat particles together through the manufacturing process.
  • Preservation: Thickeners prevent some level of food deterioration, increasing the shelf life and stability of foods like bread, ice cream, beer, and carbonated beverages.

Food thickeners are extensively used in the food industry in foods like yogurt, jelly, ice cream, and gravy.

Food thickeners derive from natural products and are safe to use in food manufacturing. There are several food thickeners available, but they come in two primary categories — polysaccharides and proteins:

  • Polysaccharide Thickeners: Polysaccharides are types of sugars, with the name literally meaning "many sugars" — each molecule of a polysaccharide consists of several sugar units. Polysaccharide thickeners include starches, vegetable gums, and pectin. Food starches are a common example, with starches available that are derived from arrowroot, corn, potato, sago, and tapioca.
  • Protein Thickeners: Protein thickeners are derived from animal products. These include collagen, egg whites, and gelatin.

While these thickeners are safe, some thickeners are more suitable for certain applications than others due to differences in taste, texture, and chemical makeup. For example, arrowroot and cornstarch are both polysaccharide starches — while both are effective thickeners, arrowroot is a better choice than cornstarch for acidic or cold foods because cornstarch is less potent in acidic mixtures and low temperatures.

Cellulosics are used as thickening agents in food but are also used as stabilizers and protective colloids. Brenntag provides several varieties of cellulosics from Ashland, including CMC, HMC, and HPMC.

Cellulose is derived primarily from wood, forming nearly half of the cells in wood and other plants. It became a popular food additive in the form of cellulosic primarily due to its ability to be used as a thickening agent, emulsifier, and stabilizer. Wood has been used as a food additive since ancient times, providing texture and consistency to foods when pulped. Since cellulose is indigestible by humans, it is a useful ingredient for increasing bulk and is particularly desirable in the production of low-calorie foods.

Food gums are a specific type of thickener. Made up of polysaccharides, food gums are tasteless and odorless and are added to foods to lend them the following properties:

  • Texture: Like other types of food thickeners, food gums can change the texture and fluidity of foods, reducing the amount of fluid by absorbing it. Gums are known as being particularly useful for this purpose, increasing the viscosity of the food even when used in very small amounts.
  • Preservation: Gums are commonly used as preservatives, increasing the shelf life of foods like bread, ice cream, and various beverages.
  • Gelling: Gums are common gelling agents, used to stabilize and provide structure for foods like jellies and candies.

Gums are used across the food manufacturing industry in similar applications as thickening agents, though they are particularly common in dairy products, fruit products, and candies.

Food gums, like thickeners, are safe for human consumption and very effective. Food gums are almost exclusively vegetable gums of natural origin, coming from plant sources of all types. The most common food gums are:

  • Agar-Agar: This vegetable gum is used as a gelling agent for dairy products, notably yogurt. Agar-agar has the ability to absorb water, making it a highly valuable and effective thickening agent.
  • Cellulose Gum: Cellulose gum is a vegetable gum used in the home and in the food industry to thicken ice cream, beverages, and baked foods. It is particularly useful as a preservative and is known to prevent the formation of ice crystals in ice cream.
  • Xanthan Gum: Another common gum found in the home, xanthan gum is predominantly used in salad dressing, sauces, and fillings as a thickener. It's also very useful as a preservative. Xanthan gum has the ability to maintain viscosity in a wide range of temperatures and pH ranges , making it particularly versatile.
  • Guar Gum: This vegetable gum is effective in both cold and warm water and has excellent thickening properties. Containing soluble dietary fibers, guar gum is frequently added to bread to improve its dietary content.
  • Locust Bean Gum: Also called carob bean gum, locust bean gum is made from the carob bean's seed and is primarily used as a fluid thickener. This vegetable gum is used as an additive for desserts and dairy products.
  • Pectin: Derived from fruit peels, pectin is a vegetable gum used to make a gel. It assists in the production of fruit-based products like jam and fruit drinks as well as in the manufacturing of dairy products like yogurt.

While all the food gums listed above are safe to use in food, selecting the right one is essential. Some gums, like xanthan gum, are highly versatile and can be used in several food types, while others, like locust bean gum, show the greatest effectiveness in certain temperature ranges.

One of the most broadly used food gums is guar gum, which Brenntag supplies. Guar gum is commonly used in beverages of all types, canned foods, cooked foods, dairy products, jellies, frostings, ice cream, sauces, syrups, and baked goods.

Guar gum is derived from the seeds of the plant Cyamopsis tetragonoloba, primarily found in the Middle East and South Asia. Guar gum became popular in the United States in the 1940s and '50s as a replacement for locust bean gum and quickly gained traction. Now, guar gum is used as an emulsifier and thickening agent in the food industry, helping to stabilize and suspend liquid-solid foods. All of these benefits can be achieved by adding guar gum in amounts of less than 1% of the total food weight .

Get in contact for food additives

Food gums, thickeners, and waxes are important additives in the food productionindustry, creating products that are delicious and fresh. Finding additives that demonstrate the high quality you desire can be a challenge — that's where Brenntag North America Food and Nutrition can help.

Brenntag is a leading distributor for the food industry, providing superlative food ingredients and additives from around the world. Brenntag offers a wide range of food additives for the food manufacturing industry, both natural and synthetic, and works hard to ensure the products we source are the best. With unparalleled experience in a broad range of industries, we know what you're looking for and work with top suppliers to provide the materials you need to keep your operation running. You can trust Brenntag to connect you with the products you need through our network of more than 190 locations.

Contact Brenntag today to learn more about our food additive solutions.

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