Science & Technology

Look inside the intricate gel on the Thanksgiving table

Jell-O, salad dressings, puddings, jams and jellies, marshmallows, tofu, cream cheese, low-fat hot dogs: everything has it. And in fact, without it, they wouldn’t look or taste like them. It changes the solid-state physics of these foods.

It is a gelling agent.

But what is really a gel? And how does it give these unique foods, and even some laxatives, pill coatings, and even cosmetics, those unique ones? Gel??

Gels are known as “viscoelastic” substances. Physically, it lives somewhere between a liquid and a solid.

Gels are basically composed of polymers, long chains of repeating molecules. Gelling agents used in foods are composed of protein-based or sugar-based polymers. They come from a variety of natural resources, including animal and plant parts.

To get the gel from any of these sources, you need to change something. Gelation occurs when changes in temperature, pressure, pH, or concentration, or the presence of salts or enzymes, spontaneously release collagen or cellulose from bound tissue.

Boiling is often included, which allows the released polymer soup to come together in a close hug. They form surprisingly complex networks — ranging from linear strands to branched networks to spherical glassy structures.

However, gelling agents introduce some amazing functional properties into foods that help them produce. The gel may thicken. They can be stable. They can control the crystal growth of ice and sugar in food. They can give the liquid a stickiness. They can make foods elastic or brittle, longer or diffusible, chewy or creamy. They replace fat. This diversity has been recognized by humans for thousands of years.

One of the first gelling agents in widespread use was isinglass, or “fish glue.” Derived from a fish float, it was used by ancient Romans and medieval bookmakers. The popularity of Isinglass was only obscured by the rise of industrial livestock production. The ruins of a slaughterhouse have become a major source of gelatin around the world.

An increasing number of people consider gelling agents from animals unpleasant or unacceptable. At the same time, there is growing interest in vegetarian, vegan, halal and kosher products. Fortunately, there are many gelling agents in the ocean. An example is agar. A botanical gelling agent obtained from the cell walls of red algae, it is used in cooking such as flour-free noodles, hot apple jelly, and Roquefort ice cream.

But there are still other plant-based gels. The next time you pick up a can of soup, a jar of jam, or a pack of candy, be aware of the following additives:

Other plant-based gels are:
Pectin: A soluble fiber found in virtually all plants.
Carrageenan: An extract from red algae.
Cellulose: The main substance in the walls of plant cells.

However, despite its history and widespread use, some gelling agents do not agree with everyone. For example, carrageenan and agar caused allergic reactions in some people and abdominal cramps and diarrhea in others.

In the European Union, carrageenan is banned even in infant formula as a precautionary measure.Similar bans do not exist in the United States

That is the reason for understanding whether the gelling agent has penetrated the plate. And that is your “service to science.”

Look inside the intricate gel on the Thanksgiving table Look inside the intricate gel on the Thanksgiving table

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