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Nonfattening Food Additive Made From Sugar

By Ben Hardin
September 14, 1999

Sugarbeet and sugarcane industries may someday provide a less-expensive, domestic alternative to gum arabic. U.S. industries now use thousands of tons of the imported gum, a thickener and stabilizer that’s added to citrus-based soft drinks and a variety of other products.

Agricultural Research Service scientists are harnessing the power of a microbe to assemble sugar molecules into an alternative that has some--and perhaps all--of gum arabic’s choice qualities.

As an emulsifier, gum arabic helps water and food oils mix and stay mixed. Food processors use it to help icings stick to cake, prevent syrups from crystallizing, and maintain a foamy head on a glass of beer--all without changing flavor. Some gum arabic is used as a bulking agent or filler to provide a desired texture in cosmetics and in industrial products like ink and adhesives.

So far, from sugar, scientists at the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, Peoria, Illinois, have made versions of a nonfattening carbohydrate polymer, alternan, that consistently mimics gum arabic’s bulking feature. Now, they’re trying to develop versions that mimic gum arabic’s emulsifying action.

ARS, the USDA's chief scientific agency, has patented several alternan-related inventions in the past two years. Using an enzyme produced by the bacterium, Leuconostocmesenteroides, the scientists recently developed ways to produce 100-liter batches for testing as bulking agents in a variety of applications.

U.S. companies now buy gum arabic at volatile prices--sometimes higher than $5 per pound. Sudan produces more of the gum than any other country.

The cost of making alternan is expected to be similar to that of dextran, which currently wholesales for about $3 per pound. A coproduct would be high fructose syrup.

An article about the research appears in the September issue of Agricultural Research magazine and online at:


Scientific contact: Gregory L. Cote and Timothy D. Leathers, ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, Peoria, IL; phone (309) 681-6591, fax (309) 681-6693, and