The food industry has for decades leaned on an inexpensive and natural thickening agent: guar gum. It builds viscosity in ice cream, dressing, baked goods, and other foods you've likely eaten it in the past week (as well as makeup, explosives, and other things you probably haven't eaten, ever).
In recent years, the natural gas industry has developed a huge appetite for the thickening powder created from the ground insides of guar seeds, commonly grown in India. Guar gum is part of the liquid mixture pumped deep underground at high pressures to release natural gas from porous rock formations.
Each fracturing job requires 20,000 pounds of guar, or the yield of about 80 acres of the crop, Calvin Trostle, an associate professor and agronomist for Texas A&M University's AgriLife Research & Extension Center, told the Houston Chronicle.
That means hundreds of millions of pounds of guar have circulated beneath the surface of Northeast Texas. That's guar that will never, ever reach its full potential as a stabilizer keeping ice cream at its peak creaminess.
In fact, the amount of guar used for fracking could supply enough ice cream to circle the globe twice, in double-dips (approximately). And with this unprecedented increase in demand comes -- you guessed it -- a sharp increase in prices. Halliburton, one of the largest energy companies, told the Houston Chronicle that some varieties of guar gum have risen in price eightfold since January 2011. Food Business News published an article last year lamenting the fact that the oil and gas industry is causing ice cream and tortilla producers to pay a premium for what's typically been a common ingredient. Blue Bell Creameries has seen the price double, according to the Chronicle.
Substitutes for guar gum have proven less effective for various reasons. Farmers in South Asia have pumped up production to meet the demands of their new customer base. Whether or when prices will stabilize remains to be seen. For now, Indian farmers must feel as though they're in a gold rush. American food manufacturers and ice cream enthusiasts, not so much.
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