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Pectin is a natural product which can be found in the cell walls of all higher plants and it has long been used for its gel formation, thickening and stabilising properties in a wide range of applications from food to the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.
Pectin was first isolated and described in 1825 by Henri Braconnot, though the action of pectin to make jams was known long before this date. To make good jam from fruit that has poor quality pectin, pectin-rich fruits or their extracts were mixed into the recipe. During industrialisation, the makers of fruit preserves soon turned to producers of apple juice to obtain dried apple pomace that was then cooked to extract pectin. In the 1920s and 1930s, factories were built that commercially extracted pectin from dried apple pomace and later citrus peel.
At first pectin was sold as a liquid extract, but then as a dried powder which is easier to store and handle than a liquid.
In the recent years, the centre of production has remained in Europe but has expanded to citrus producing countries like Mexico and Brazil.
The role of pectin in plants
Pectin has an important influence on the middle lamella between plant cells since protopectin, insoluble pectin, and cellulose form the structure of the cell walls, binding cells together and controlling the water in the plant. The amount of time needed for extraction, the structure and chemical composition of the pectin differs between plants, within a plant over time and in different parts of a plant.
During ripening, pectin is broken down by the enzymes pectinase and pectinesterase. In this process the fruit becomes softer as the middle lamella breaks down and cells become separated from each other.
Natural and healthy pectin
Pectin is a natural part of human diet, being present in fruits and vegetables, but does not contribute significantly to nutrition. Pectin passes through the small intestine more or less intact. Pectin is therefore a highly sophisticated stabiliser recognised globally by consumers as label friendly and as one of the most important sources of dietary fibre.
Consumption of pectin has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels. The mechanism appears to be an increase of viscosity in the intestinal tract, leading to a reduced absorption of cholesterol from bile or food. In the large intestine and colon, microorganisms degrade pectin and liberate short-chain fatty acids that have a positive influence on health (prebiotic effect).