Known also as carob bean gum, the ingredient is derived from the seed of the evergreen carob tree and acts as a natural stabilizer, thickener and emulsifier. It is highly sought-after by food manufacturers - particularly those in the business of ice cream, dairy, infant formula and plant-based alternatives - as an alternative to synthetic stabilizers and thickeners, and for enabling clean-label formulations and supporting sustainable claims.
In the last five years and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, demand vastly outstripped supply, causing prices to rise by 800% at one point. Alternative blends and ingredients were formulated to plug the supply gap while offering similar functional benefits at lower prices. But according to IFF, one of the largest suppliers of LBG globally, the crisis is now over. “The current state of locust bean gum availability is robust and stable. LBG pricing has also stabilized since the supply shortages,” said Jean-Baptiste Dufeu, global product manager, LBG, Nourish IFF.
“Presently, prices are close to what they were in 2017, when adjusted for inflation, prior to the kernel shortage. While it's natural to expect some minor fluctuations in prices, these variations are now within a very limited range.”
Whilst not commenting on global supply chain conditions, the IFF representative said the company itself was ‘fully prepared’ to meet demand for the sought-after ingredient. “Over the past 12 months, we have recovered and strengthened our supply chains. Our efforts have included rebuilding inventory carry-over stocks, which are essential for maintaining a consistent supply, and taking proactive measures to develop conditions for higher supply volumes in the coming decades, including support for the development of new plantations.”
The locust bean tree is an evergreen capable of withstanding droughts that are increasingly affecting its native growing region – the Mediterranean – but it takes around 8-10 years for the tree to bear fruit, which can in turn be harvested only once a year. Dufeu admitted IFF was ‘acutely aware of the unique challenges associated with carob production’ and that measures had been taken to mitigate the likelihood of another severe shortage. “We have proactively initiated strategic partnerships with farmers,” he stated. “This long-term commitment to collaboration has been in progress for several years, and we are already witnessing significant results.
LBG can be used across a wide spectrum of both dairy and dairy alternatives, and it’s an essential ingredient in many different products. Some of the key applications include plant-based beverages, infant formula, cream cheese, pet food, bakery and confectionery. LBG is well known for its ability to enhance creamy mouthfeel, texture, and shelf-life stability, contributing to the quality and performance of a range of products, which demonstrates its value in the food industry.
“The partnerships not only ensure the current availability of carob but also lay the foundation for sustained and robust supply in the future.
“By working closely with farmers, we are actively contributing to the resilience of the industry, minimising the risk of future shortages, and fostering the continued development of carob crops.”
But amidst growing availability of LBG alternatives on the market – either in the shape of other natural ingredients such as tara gum or blends and specialist ingredients formulated to replace LBG – what evidence is there that manufacturers still want to use ‘the real thing’, given the price and availability fluctuations? Citing Mintel data, Dufeu said there was ‘a positive trend in the demand for LBG among food manufacturers today’. “In the first and second quarters of 2023, we've observed that the number of new products incorporating LBG is very close to the figures recorded in the same period in 2021. This suggests a notable resurgence in confidence among food manufacturers regarding LBG supply, indicative of a growing interest in LBG.
“While demand for LBG is expected to rebound, it may take up to five years to fully return to pre-crisis levels.
“This five-year horizon allows for significant increases in crop volume and carry-over stocks, ensuring a more consistent and reliable LBG supply for manufacturers in the future.”
As for alternative ingredients and solutions, Dufeu insisted that there are factors that suggest LBG remains superior. “LBG possesses unique functionalities that are difficult to replace, and its effectiveness at low usage rates sets it apart from alternative ingredients. For instance, in applications like ice cream, LBG excels in reducing ice crystal growth at lower concentration levels compared to other hydrocolloids. Furthermore, manufacturers who choose LBG can be confident that they’re using a naturally sourced ingredient from carob trees that are grown with very little use of fertilizers and water.”
In ice cream, LBG is the most widely-used hydrocolloid, he added. “What's more, its usage is anticipated to remain strong, mirroring the expected growth of the ice cream market [2% CAGR from 2023 to 2027, according to Euromonitor]. In the current market landscape, consumers are seeking added value in their food choices, emphasising quality, functionality, clean labels, sustainability, and longer shelf life. At the same time, many are looking for emotional connections through indulgence and premiumisation. This presents a unique opportunity for ice cream brands to continue focusing on LBG utilization with minimal cost-in-use (CIU).”
Handbook of Hydrocolloids (Third Edition), Woodhead Publishing Series in Food Science, Technology and Nutrition 2021, Pages 273-293
Chapter 9: Galactomannans
Author: L.M. Nwokocha