Food manufacturers use locust bean gum, which provides high viscosity and functions as a water binder, in a wide range of processed foods like cheese, ice cream, bakery products and soups.
But low inventories and poor harvests have spiked a price rise, currently trading at about €14 a kilo, to rival previous price peaks witnessed in 1995 when they leapt to €22 a kilo.
Concerned that customers will turn to cheaper alternatives, hydrocolloid firms are under pressure to soften the price hike to their customers, while at the same time remaining competitive in their market.
German chemicals group Degussa, the number two global producer of locust bean gum in a 12,000 ton market, told FoodNavigator.com that the firm secures the raw material - seeds from the carob tree - before clearing LBG deals with its customers.
"We are thoroughly committed to our locust bean gum range, and our goal is to smooth price increases for this wonderful natural product to our customers, at the same time providing a fair price to the farmer," said Urlich Zuber, product director of hydrocolloids at Degussa Texturant Systems.
But passing the price onto the market is the 'only thing to do' because ultimately the hydrocolloid player must pay for the raw materials.
The firm principally sources carob seeds from Morocco - the Mediterranean basin is the key area for carob trees - where it has an extraction factory, and uses widespread procurement to build up stocks that are immediately transformed into the gum to meet customer orders.
"To a certain extent we purchase our supplies from kibblers, these are the firms that crush the fruit to extract the seeds. They are an important link in the chain," added Zuber.
From farmer to co-operative, the carob tree fruit passes to the kibbler who will then largely sell to the locust bean gum producer. The final end point is the processed food producer.
Locust bean gum is one of the classic cyclic hydrocolloids, that along with gum arabic traditionally experiences price highs and lows, with the last peak in 1995.
Unlike guar gum, which dissolves in cold water, locust bean gum does not fully dissolve in water below a temperature of 85 degrees C.
This factor makes the gum particularly suitable for some uses in processed food products, where its thickening and texturing properties do not interrupt the cooking process until a high temperature is reached.
Dairy and other stabilised products benefit from the flow, emulsification, and free thaw stability properties provided by LBG.
The gum is also blended with other hydrocolloids, 'principally carrageenan but also xanthan gum and others,' says Zuber, due to its strong interaction and synergistic effect. In their presence, LBG forms a gel.
As well as selling directly to the customers, Degussa uses the LBG in its blended business.
Prices for LBG are only slated to see some relief if the next harvest, in autumn 2005, is strong.