As high maize prices continue to stoke fears about food price inflation, slimmers and those on a gluten-free diet could soon be hit by price increases as the cost of xanthan gum is going up.

Xanthan gum is widely used as a thickening agent and substitute for egg whites in products such as salad dressings, sauces and fillings, and it is often added to low-fat or no-fat dairy products to improve mouthfeel.

It can also be used for making gluten-free foods, as xanthan gum can increase the binding strength of gluten-free flour.

Xanthan is generally derived through the fermentation of the glucose in maize syrup, making it highly vulnerable to any increases in the cost of maize on the global commodity markets. Fierce competition between producers in 2008/9 made xanthan gum very cheap, but prices in China - the world’s largest producer - have now increased by 25% to £3,237/tonne year-on-year.

Commodity prices 29 September 2012

Although crude oil is back on a downward trend, dropping by 6.5% over the past month and down 2.3% year-on-year, two plastic packaging materials continue to rise. The cost of HDPE in the UK has risen by 10.5% over the past month, with LDPE film up by 8.9% m-o-m and 10.5% y-o-y.

Orange juice concentrate in the US has risen over potential weather problems in Florida, but prices have started to ease more recently - and are 26.1% below 2011 levels - as fears of hurricanes have subsided.

Tea from Kenya and Sri Lanka has fallen over the past four weeks, although leaves from both origins remain more expensive when compared with this time last year. Tea prices have been falling, largely in response to weaker demand.

It’s not just soaring maize prices as a result of the US drought that are to blame. Xanthan gum is increasingly being used as a cheaper alternative to guar gum in many foods, and by the oil industry, to thicken drilling mud.

Guar prices recently fell on the expectation of a good Indian guar crop in November, but if global demand for guar continues to outstrip the supply, traditional users of guar gum - also from the food industry - are expected to increasingly look for alternative thickeners or gel forming compounds such as xanthan gum.

Demand for guar and xanthan from the oil exploration sector is tipped to remain strong - and maize prices are expected to stay high for months to come - putting further pressure on many slimmers’ favourites on UK supermarket shelves.