Could zein be a clean label alternative to glycerin in snacks?

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images / digitalr
© Getty Images / digitalr

Related tags Nutrition

Zein, a protein from corn, could serve as more label-friendly alternative to glycerin, says the director of business development for the only US-based zein supplier.

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after we ran an article highlighting PepsiCo’s search for clean-label alternatives to glycerin,​ Robert Zeif from Massachusetts-based Flo Chemical Corporation told us that zein (pronounced ‘zane’) “ticked all the boxes”​ listed by PepsiCo in a request​ posted on NineSigma’s open innovation site NineSights ​ (deadline: December 29, 2017).

“Zein will add shelf-life, it will be flexible, it will encapsulate a micronutrient or a taste molecule or a color,”​ said Zeif.

“Totally natural”

Zein is the water-insoluble prolamine extracted from corn, that can form odorless, tasteless, clear, hard and almost invisible edible films. It is extracted physically and not chemically from corn, making it “totally natural”, said Zeif. “It is a food ingredient, not an additive,”​ he added. Zein is 100% gluten-free.

For Flo Chemical, the majority of the business has historically been in the food and pharma sector, but the company has increasingly been eying expansion opportunities in food. “There is a lot more opportunity in food,”​ said Zeif.

In the food and confection industries, the ingredient is used for coating enriched rice, candies, such as chocolates and jelly beans, dried fruits, nuts, nut meats, and also for the encapsulation of flavors and sweeteners.

While “zein” may not be the most consumer-friendly name, the ingredient can legally be called many things, including ‘confectionery glaze’, ‘protein glaze’, ‘protein coat’, ‘vegetable glaze’, or ‘vegetable coat’ (while in the UK, some chocolate manufacturers refer to it as ‘maize protein’), he noted.  

Flo Chemical notes that zein is considered a better coating than shellac because zein coating solutions dry faster offering extended shelf-life, particularly under high-humidity and high-heat conditions. Zein is also vegan.

What is PepsiCo looking for?

What is glycerin?

An odorless, slightly sweet, viscous clear liquid, glycerin has multiple applications, and can serve as a humectant (to provide and retain moisture) and a plasticizer (something to help food products retain their structure/shape), explained PepsiCo.

As reported recently by FoodNavigator-USA, PepsiCo is seeking an alternative to glycerin that is edible, non-toxic and ‘natural’, “meaning that the ingredient has not been subject to processing outside of basic processing steps (e.g. heating, cutting, grinding, pasteurizing, freezing, etc.).”

Second, it must be ‘label friendly,’ “meaning that it does not sound like a long chemical on the ingredient list or is familiar & accepted by consumers…” with “line of sight to regulatory compliance and approval,” and must not provide nutrients to limit [as defined in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans – eg. sodium, saturated fat etc].

Technical requirements

From a technical perspective, it must not react negatively with other ingredients (eg. promote accelerated oxidation, discoloration etc); it must function as a plasticizer in cold-form or baked snack format over an extended shelf-life of up to 12 months; it must lower water activity equivalent to or greater than an equal amount of glycerin; and it should taste “no worse than glycerin.”

Ideally (but these are not essential), it would also provide some nutritional value beyond calories; serve as a replacement for sweet ingredients contributing less added sugar; cost below or similar to glycerin; and allow for Non-GMO, organic and/or gluten free claims.”

Zeif told us that all of Flo Chemical’s zein is non-GMO, it is also Kosher and Halal compliant. The ingredient “ticks all of the boxes”,​ he said. However, it does cost more than glycerin.

“I’d be interest in speaking with the team at PepsiCo, or any food manufacturer looking for a clean label alternative to glycerin,” ​said Zeif.

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