Secret Sap Oozes Major Promise

February 6, 2016 02:15 AM

Frost grape’s hidden key might offer a new food ingredient and crop opportunity

In the shot heard ‘round the candy world, Hans Riegel dropped a pinch of gum Arabic into his magical cauldron, creating gummy bears in the 1920s. The discovery, with gum Arabic as the base ingredient, rocketed his Haribo company to legendary fame and billion-dollar status. Gum Arabic, an obscure but crucial ingredient in soda, candy, medicine and cosmetics, is in the midst of a demand explosion with no ceiling in sight.

Gum Arabic is the linchpin in thousands of product lines—particularly in the soft drink industry. However, even with huge global demand, gum Arabic faces new competition. Two USDA-Agricultural Research Service scientists have discovered a crystalline, oozing sap hiding in frost grape vines, similar to gum Arabic. If their findings hold, it could fill market demand and offer farmers a new crop. 

In September 2014, plant physiologist Steve Vaughn collected frost grape samples for biochar research. He cut a bundle of 3' sections, 1" to 2.5" in diameter, and stacked the load on his back porch. The next morning, he saw globs of clear sap, half the size of ping pong balls, at the base of each stem. Finding no information about the sap online, and with curiosity mounting, he took the cuttings to his colleague Neil Price, research chemist, at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, in Peoria, Ill. 


Price and Vaughn had stumbled across a pure polysaccharide packed with unique properties. A native perennial in most U.S. states, frost grape is often used as graft stock for wine grapes. Yet, Price and Vaughn found virtually no research data or studies on frost grape polysaccharide. 

“This polysaccharide is amazingly pure and I’m very excited,” Price says. Gum Arabic acts as an emulsifying detergent, yet maintains a neutral taste—a vital ingredient characteristic. Frost grape polysaccharide is also flavorless and is as efficient as gum Arabic, he says. “We’ve got more product testing in front of us, but we’re so excited about what we’re seeing.”

Gum Arabic is filled with impurities, yellow to brown in color, and is marketed in three grades. Polysaccharide is uniformly crystalline—a major advantage over gum Arabic. Polysaccharide is oily in nature and not sticky. It hardens to a gummy clear plastic-type substance. In addition, polysaccharide contains no allergens, a problem with gum Arabic.

Derived from acacia trees, gum Arabic is farmed almost solely in Chad, Nigeria and Sudan—areas notorious for political turmoil and civil war. Supply shortages are common, creating waves of market instability. 

“Frost grape absolutely has crop potential for U.S. growers,” Vaughn says. “Polysaccharide has different properties from gum Arabic and we suspect it’s better than gum Arabic. We need an ag field research facility to get frost grape production going.”

“Demand is waiting,” Price adds. “We’ve got interest from all sides. We’re going to find so many other uses for polysaccharide—this could be a jump ahead.” 

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