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Decades-long research results in new type of advanced food thickener

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Posted June 10, 2015

Scientists at Oregon State University have discovered and commercialized a new type of dairy thickener that may add probiotic characteristics to some of the products in which it is used. It is a significant achievement of microbiologists of the university, which will have impact on food manufacturing industry and economy in general. The research took decades but now the food thickener is patented and already in use.

The thickener is now in commercial use and it may have a significant impact in major industries in United States. It is estimated that U.S. spends up to $ 120 billion a year on probiotic products such as yogurt, sour cream and buttermilk. The global market for polymers like this food thickener approaches approximately $7 billion.

New type of dairy thickener can be used to thicken variety of popular products and is already in use after research that took decades to complete. Image courtesy of oregonstate.edu.

New type of dairy thickener can be used to thicken variety of popular products and is already in use after research that took decades to complete. Image courtesy of oregonstate.edu.

The research that allowed such results took decades and began in the early 1990s when a novel polymer with an ability to rapidly thicken milk was discovered. The new product was produced by isolating bacteria that produces polymer, known as Ropy 352. Research took so long, because it was not the only bacteria included into it. Janine Trempy, a microbiologist from Oregon State University, said that they have “discovered that this bacterium had a brand-new, never-before reported grouping of genes that code for a unique polymer that naturally thickens milk”. During the research scientists also broadened the understanding why such bacterium produces polymers.

There are very few bacteria like this, which produce desired polymers that can be used in food industry. Polymer Ropy 352 ferments the sugar in the milk and produces a substance that changes properties of the milk. This bacterium not only does not induce any disease of sickness to humans, but can actually benefit their health.

This new dairy thickener will work with variety of products, such as whole and non-fat milk, lactose-free milk, coconut milk, rice milk, and other products. Furthermore, polymer may have application in health sciences as well. For example, thickening of pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, fruit juices, cosmetics and personal care products or products designed for use in either dieting or gaining weight. It does not take much of imagination to use Ropy 352 in other applications microbial polymers are used: chemical production, detergents, cosmetics, paints, pesticides, fertilizers, film formers, lubricants, explosives, pharmaceutical production and waste treatment. It is thought to be completely food safe and even beneficial, unlike some now used products.

For comparison, xanthum gum, which has been in use since 1969 and can be found in variety of food products, from canned foods to ice cream, pharmaceuticals and beauty products, is not completely safe. Even though U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ruled this polymer as “generally recognized as safe”, it is derived from a bacterium known to be a plant pathogen and suspected of causing digestive distress or being “pyrogenic,” or fever-inducing. During the research Ropy 352 proved to be much more beneficial for human health and much safer for use in food industry.

It also shows how decades long researches do not lose their relevance and still can produce important results. Even if they are more important for industries, which are already using this polymer, than everyday life of common people.

Source: Oregon State University

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