It may be one of the more polarizing vegetables, thanks to its slimy texture. But okra, the pod-like green vegetable popular in the Southern U.S. and South Asia, may soon be more commonly eaten in Canada — in one of our favourite treats.
Okra is a staple in India and Pakistan, where it is often deep-fried to rid it of any sliminess, before being sauteed in a curry. It also turns up in gumbo in Louisiana where the slime acts as a thickener.
And it's exactly that slime that has food scientists in Canada looking at ways of incorporating okra into ice cream.
Doug Goff is a food scientist at the University of Guelph, where ice cream technology has been in the curriculum for a century now. He thinks the slime could become the perfect "gum" in commercial ice cream production.
Goff says large-scale commercial ice cream requires a stabilizer, the ingredient that prevents the product from hardening too much in storage. Stabilizers also allow the ice cream to melt more slowly, and when it does melt, the texture is thicker.
The most common stabilizer in commercial ice cream is guar bean powder, commonly known as guar gum.
Ice cream ingredient bought up by fracking industry
The trouble is that guar gum has become increasingly expensive, thanks to its use in the hydraulic fracturing or fracking industry. Fracking is an increasingly popular method for extracting oil and gas by pumping high-pressure fluids into shale or coal formations to fracture the rock, releasing the fossil fuels. The guar gum is used to thicken those fluids in order to make the process more efficient.
"I've heard from a number of people in the ice cream stabilizing industry that they are really needing to find alternatives to guar fairly quickly," Goff said.
"Guar utilization in the gas extraction industry has gone way up in recent years and that has driven the price way up to the point where it is non-competitive anymore for the food industry."
And that's where okra comes in. Turns out, the slime in okra has thickening properties not unlike those of guar beans.
In his most recent study, published in the journal Food Products, Goff says the results of early experiments are promising.
"So we just took the okra pods, we squeezed the pods to get the mucilaginous material from it," he explained.
That material was then purified and used in ice cream in three different concentrations. Tested alongside ice cream with no stabilizer and product with guar gum, Goff said okra performed very well.
"At concentrations very similar to guar gum it provided very similar results. At higher concentrations, it even out- performed guar gum."
Goff added that okra-stabilized ice cream doesn't taste like okra.
In any case, it is unlikely to turn up in your freezer in the very near future.
Goff says require several years of commercial testing are needed to ensure it works on a large scale for major ice cream producers.