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Pushing Pectin

The humble jelly maker has caught the attention of chemical firms

by Melody M. Bomgardner
July 22, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 29

Credit: Workstead Industries
Workstead Industries shows how to make some low-sugar strawberry jam using their brand of pectin.

One of the hottest trends in food chemistry these days is an ingredient that has been around for generations: pectin. And chemical firms, which are increasingly keen on the high-growth food and beverage markets, want in on the action.

In April, FMC struck a deal to buy Pectine Italia, a pectin maker with a facility in Milazzo, on the island of Sicily. Then in May, DSM took a 19% stake in China’s Yantai Andre Pectin. Andre’s pectin comes from apple peels. Most of the world’s pectin, however, is made from citrus fruit peels. Pectine Italia gets its pectin from lemons. DuPont, which got into the pectin business in 2011 with the acquisition of Danisco, is also a large purveyor of citrus pectin.

Although this complex polysaccharide comes from nature rather than the lab, experts say chemical makers and pectin go together like peanut butter and jelly. “There is no question that a lot of chemical companies are aggressively pursuing all specialty chemicals, and food chemicals are not the least of it,” says Dennis Seisun, owner of the hydrocolloid consulting firm IMR International. With pectin, chemical firms can offer food makers a product that both is label friendly and has the potential to be customized for different functions, he says.

Credit: Melody Bomgardner/C&EN
Most of the world’s pectin is derived from citrus fruit peels.
Citrus fruit to illustrate story on pectin, made from the peels
Credit: Melody Bomgardner/C&EN
Most of the world’s pectin is derived from citrus fruit peels.

Consumers love the familiar, down-home look of pectin on an ingredients list, Seisun stresses. “The level of concern and distrust around what goes in food is growing, not declining,” he notes. “Pectin comes out clean as a whistle.”

For that reason, pectin is a fast-growing slice of the global market for hydrocolloids, though it is relatively pricey at about $8.00 per lb. Hydrocolloids trap water and can form gels at low concentrations, adding desirable texture to foods and beverages. Global demand for convenience foods is on the rise, and that has expanded the market for hydrocolloids. The biggest seller is starch, but pectin’s slice of the pie is faster growing, Seisun says. Currently about $850 million worth of pectin is sold annually, and that figure increases 5–6% per year.

At FMC, pectin joins a family of hydrocolloids that includes cellulose gum, carrageenan, and alginates. When asked why the company needs yet another gelling agent, FMC Marketing Director Marshall Fong points to yogurt. “Twenty years ago, yogurt was a blob of white mass with fruit on the bottom. It didn’t have a lot of ingredients. Now there are whips and mousses, stirred yogurts and Greek yogurt and drinkable yogurt.” To serve the modern food market in all its variety, he says, FMC needs to offer a range of additives for food textures.

Another benefit of pectin in the texturizing tool chest is that it works in acidic conditions, unlike FMC’s other products, Fong says. “We had wanted to offer pectin for decades; it’s something we’ve lusted after.”

Citrus peels, the leftovers of juice making, contain about 25% pectin by dry weight, which makes them an efficient raw material, according to FMC. The peel is immersed in a weak solution of acid to dissolve the pectin. Alcohol is added to the resulting mixture to coagulate the pectin, which can then be removed and dried.

The result is a complex polysaccharide. Pectin is made up of a chain of d-galacturonic acid esterified with methoxy groups. In its basic form, pectin has a major drawback—it requires a huge amount of sugar to activate the gelling process. A fruit concoction would need to include 50% sugar to make jelly, for example. But pectin makers can remove methoxy groups to create versions that gel in the presence of calcium, without the need for all that sugar.

The world’s largest pectin producer by volume is food ingredients company CP Kelco. In June, it announced that it would expand production at its Brazilian pectin operation by 30%. “We’re trying to keep pace with new folks coming into the market and sustain our leadership position,” says Jane Schulenburg, the firm’s global marketing director.

Although low-methoxyl pectin has been around for about 30 years, newer concerns about sugar and obesity are helping CP Kelco move pectin into products beyond jelly and yogurt. For example, it can be used in diet carbonated beverages to restore the mouthfeel that is lost when sugar is removed. Schulenburg says she hopes to convince low-calorie-beer makers to adopt pectin so their products, too, will be less watery.

But fruit preserves are still a big business for pectin. And home cooks can also benefit from low-methoxyl pectin. One brand, Pomona’s Universal Pectin, is packaged and sold by Workstead Industries, a small, family-owned business. The company buys bulk pectin without additives such as dextrose, says owner Mary Lou Sumberg. The company’s pectin comes with a packet of monocalcium phosphate to activate the gelling power.

“People are really into jam,” Sumberg says. “The biggest thing about low-sugar jam is that you taste the fruit, not just the sweet.” For chemical firms, pectin’s connection to such homemade favorites is what makes the business a sweet one.



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