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A Dairy Thickener with Probiotic Powers

Ropy 352 is a huge polymer with some even bigger implications for the dairy industry. Now don’t be scared off by the word polymer—it just means a very long string of molecules.

After microbiologists at Oregon State University isolated some good (meaning non-disease causing) bacteria in their lab, they notice that the bacteria produced a polymer with some very intriguing properties.

It turns out that Ropy 352, as the microbiologists named the polymer, has the power to confer a creamier, thicker consistency on fermented foods, like sour cream, yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, and yes, cheese. According to Jenine Trempy, an OSU microbiologist behind this research breakthrough, the polymer works by fermenting the sugar in milk and then producing a substance that alters its textural properties.

Not only does the Ropy 352 act as a thickening agent. It also turns out that it has probiotic properties. Given the huge market for probiotics in the US, this big molecule means big business. The probiotic benefits also make the thickener a potentially great alternative to xanthan gum, a current thickener of choice in the commercial food industry. The latter, also derived from bacteria, is a plant pathogen (read: makes plants ill) that has been known to cause digestive distress.

Scientists are hopeful that Ropy 352 will help make a host of foodstuffs more palatable with a better mouth feel, including non-fat and low fat products. Now, maybe, just maybe, it could be harnessed in the pursuit of better vegan cheese.

Johnisha Levi

Johnisha Levi is a Boston-area pastry cook and one of those very rare (think Pegasus) D.C. natives. If ithere's a documentary on food or true crime, chances are that she's seen it (or it's waiting in her Netflix queue). She's a culinary history nerd who is eager to spend her summer at culture learning more about cheese.