Breakthrough technology

Putting the designer into pectin

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Pectin, Sugar beet

Recent breakthroughs have given us a better understanding of the
functionalities of pectin, a high value food ingredient widely used
as a gelling agent and stabiliser.

These breakthroughs could be significant. Demand for functional ingredients has expanded with the growth of both convenience and health foods - two sectors that have increasingly been merging. Designer pectins could therefore play an important role in this future. For example, the majority of pectin currently used comes from citrus peel and apple pomace. But advances into the structure and functionality of pectins, according to review authors Willats, Knox and Mikkelsen, could open the door to different sources with tailored functionalities. Writing in the journal Trends in Food Science & Technology​ (Vol. 17, pp. 97-104), they suggest that this could be achieved to some extent by the rational modification of extracted pectin by chemical or enzymatic treatment. A more ambitious goal would be to modify pectin structure within plants before extraction. The chemical and enzymatic modification of the pectins occurs after extraction from the plant, and the most industrially important pectinolytic enzymes coming from bacterial sources. This approach has enabled scientists to tailor the pectin according to the required functionality. This is illustrated by the recent development of specialised pectin for acidified milk drink stabilisation. Another area beginning to be explored is the transgenic approach, which would allow scientists to manipulate the structure of the pectin in plants. By manipulating the expression of certain genes in specific plants, plant scientists should be able to control pectin functionalities and quality in the plants even before extraction begins, said the reviewers. Indeed, several studies have demonstrated that polygalacturonase (PG) and PME activity can be reduced before extraction. In one study, tomato fruits were produced with reduced expression of both a PG gene (LePG​) and a gene encoding an expansion cell wall structural protein. These fruits were found to be significantly firmer during ripening and were less susceptible to deterioration during long-term storage. The researchers said that in principle, pectin structure could also be modulated by manipulation of the glycosyl transferase (GT) enzymes responsible for joining together the monosaccharides in pectic polymers. However, the identification of GT-encoding genes has proved to be extremely difficult. The identification and characterization of the genes involved in the assembly of all three cell wall polymer systems therefore remains a major challenge for plant science. This area of research also has practical relevance for pectin producers. An example is illustrated by the recent 'EuroPectin' European Framework V programme aimed at improving sugar beet pectin by gene manipulation. Sugar beet pulp is potentially an abundant and low cost source of pectin, but is rarely utilised because its high DA adversely affects functionality. However, identification and characterisation of plant acetyl-transferases and esterases may in the future lead to production of pectin with improved functionality from transgenic sugar beet. ​The health effects of pectin are also receiving increasing interest. The reviewers report that there is clear evidence that pectin can lower cholesterol levels, serum glucose levels and may also have anti-cancer activities. Pectin and pectic oligosaccharides have been shown to induce apoptosis in human colonic adenocarenoma cells. The term pectin describes a family of oligosaccharides and polysaccharides that are rich in galacturonic acid (GalA). The FAO and EU stipulate that 'pectin' must consist of at least 65 per cent GalA. A pectin gel is formed when portions of HG are crossed-linked to form a three dimensional crystalline network in which water and solutes are trapped. Various factors determine gelling properties including temperature, pectin type, DE, DA, pH, sugar and other solutes, and calcium.​As the review shows, pectin manufacturers now have the knowledge and technology to manipulate pectin at all stages of the production process. It is likely therefore that pectin with new and improved functionalities will continue to be evolved. Source: Trends in Food Science & Technology​ Volume 17, Issue 3 "Review Pectin:new insights into an old polymer are starting to gel"​Authors: William G.T Willats, J. Paul Knox and Jørn Dalgaard Mikkelsen

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