Big business is in a bidding battle over a little legume that’s used in everything from food to fracking. The interest in guar gum has caused the price to dramatically spike. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah explores the popularity of this desert crop.
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.
Shampoos, ice cream, toothpaste and barbecue sauce have something in common - it's a ubiquitous, often overlooked ingredient, that comes from a little legume called guar. And as Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports, guar has become very popular and very expensive lately because of a use that just might surprise you.
SRISKANDARAJAH: When you read labels in the grocery store, you start to see it everywhere. Alright, so I've been through almost every aisle in the grocery store, and I've found a recurring theme in the bakery section. Martin's potato rolls...squishy potato rolls...flour, milk, salt, butter, soya, - near the bottom, guar gum.
Over to the ethnic food aisle. Maria and Ricardo's Tortilla Factory: guar gum. Thai Kitchen coconut milk: water, guar gum. In the dairy section - Hood cottage cheese with chive: guar gum. Almost every aisle of the grocery store, from the tip of your tongue to your Head and Shoulders, you've got guar gum.
TROSTLE: Every home in the U.S. is going to have guar in some form or fashion in the pantry or in the refrigerator or up on the shelf.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Calvin Trostle is an agronomist at the Texas A&M Agriculture program who studies this very common but little known ingredient.
TROSTLE: I went through agronomy training in Kansas where I grew up and two other universities in my training and I had heard of guar but had never seen it 'til I came to west Texas.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Most haven't heard of this desert crop. Actually, when you look up guar online, you're more likely find this:
The band, Gwar; not to be confused with the legume, guar.
(Photo: Wikimedia/ Mark Marek)
[music from band GWAR]
SRISKANDARAJAH: Unlike GWAR the metal band, famous for their nightmare-ish costumes, guar the plant is pretty unassuming. Cyamopsis tetragonolobus, in Latin, grows a couple feet off the ground with seed pods hanging off its stalks. The legume was once used for cattle feed in India; "gawaar" is Hindi for cow food. But it became more common as people food around the world during the 1950s. That's when food companies industrialized the process of extracting the large, starchy endosperm from guar beans to turn into guar gum. The magic bean derivative helps keep soft serve soft, milkshakes thick and pie crusts crumbly. And now, there's more interest in guar than ever.
TROSTLE: Part of the reason we're probably having this conversation is because of the dramatic increase in the activity in the oil fields services industry. I get more calls on guar now than I've had probably in the previous ten years combined.
Guar gum is the legume's extracted endosperm, ground into powder. (Photo: Wikimedia)
SRISKANDARAJAH: The hydraulic fracturing boom has created unprecedented demand for guar gum, which is used by the ton in natural gas wells.
TROSTLE: It's possible that an industry average of guar gum per fracking job could be as much as 20,000 pounds, or ten tons of guar gum. That number, to me, is striking.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Compared to the thousands, sometimes, millions, of gallons of water injected into wells, guar gum is used pretty sparingly. But the EPA counted 35,000 new wells drilled last year and that helped raise the price from one dollar a kilogram in 2010 to 18 dollars. Even though the guar gum bubble has inflated the price nearly twenty-fold, natural gas companies are stuck.
TROSTLE: There are other materials that could be used in lieu of guar, but when you come back to it, they may be too expensive to produce, or maybe they don't work quite as well.
The chemical structure of guar. (Photo: Wikimedia)
SRISKANDARAJAH: So how did guar become the workhorse in natural gas wells? Roger Willis, a geologist and president of Universal Wells Services, a fracking company that works Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale, explains, water injected at high pressure breaks fissures into rock.
WILLIS: And we want to take something in there to hold it open which we call proppant, which is sand, just nice, round sand, and it's easier to transport the sand farther away if the water's thicker. So what we try and do is make the water a little bit thicker with the guar gum. If you could look at it on a microscopic level, turns into almost hairs, or filaments in it. That's what gives it that viscosity.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Those hairs in water carry the sand farther horizontally in the bedrock. Then, once the natural gas is seeped out of the rocks, enzymes break those hairs.
WILLIS: You can actually time the break, and that's what we call it in our industry. The point at which the guar loses its viscosity is called its break. And it means it gets back to a, back to almost water.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The fracking fluid won't break back to "almost water" for about an hour. The breaker is a peroxide disulfate, and like many of the other multisyllabic chemicals used to help retrieve gas from wells, it draws public and scientific concern. But guar is touted by the industry as an all-natural ingredient. Clint Forbes, founder of West Texas Guar, is one of the few American guar farmers.
FORBES: We're trying to do the best we can to put a natural product and an organic, decomposable product, back into this fracking technology.
SRISKANDARAJAH: And just beyond his thousand acres of guar, he can see it in action.
FORBES: Well, they drilled an oil well and they're scheduled to frack it in two weeks, right about a mile from my house.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Though they're not using his beans.
FORBES: No, it's Indian guar!
80% of the world’s guar comes from India. (Photo: FlickrCC/ vm2827)
SRISKANDARAJAH: Less than five percent of guar used here is grown here and according to Forbes, all American guar goes into wells, not food. Which leaves the food industry short on the sticky bean. Devin Miller is the vice president of sales and marketing at Caremoli USA in Iowa, a food additive company.
MILLER: All historic highs - never seen anything like this before.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The big food brands they supply guar to get outbid by big gas.
MILLER: They can sustain these larger costs because of their profitability. For example, let's talk about a tortilla company. You know, their pennies for pound count.
The company West Texas Guar grows about 1000 acres. (Photo: Calvin Trostle)
SRISKANDARAJAH: If prices stay high, this could mean the tortilla company might switch from guar to another binding agent, like xantham gum. It could also mean a deeper look into expanding American guar crops. Or it could mean just waiting for the guar gum bubble to burst.
MILLER: It's just one of those quiet ingredients that's always there and will always be there, but to what volume and what sustainability it's just a matter of waiting for the cycle to come back around.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The future of this quiet crop is uncertain, but one thing's for sure: when the gum bubble does pop, the market won't be able to ignore guar. For Living on Earth, I'm Ike Sriskandarajah.
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