The ability of food gels to hold water affects product yield and organoleptic quality. Most researchers believe that water is held by capillarity such that gels having smaller mean pore diameter and a more hydrophilic surface hold water more tightly. To date, however, only qualitative evidence relating pore size to water holding (WH) properties has been provided. The present study sought to provide quantitative confirmation of this hypothesis. Scanning electron microscopy coupled with image analysis was used to measure pore size, and water contact angle with the gel surface was measured by the captive bubble method, in both model polyacrylamide gels and heat-induced protein (minced chicken breast) gels. These were related to water lost during cooking of meat pastes to form gels (cooking loss (CL)), as well as water lost upon centrifugation (expressible water (EW)) or by capillary suction (CSL) of all prepared gels, as inverse measures of WH. As predicted by the Young–Laplace equation for calculating capillary pressure, the presumed mechanism of WH, gels with lower water losses exhibited a more hydrophilic surface (smaller contact angle). Yet, both lower CL and CSL correlated with larger mean pore diameter of gels, not smaller as had been expected. Polyacrylamide gels varied more in WH than did prepared meat gels, yet only the capillary suction method was sensitive enough to detect these differences.
Practical Application: The ability of gels to hold water is important for economics of processing, food quality, and food safety. This study investigated the prevailing theory for how gels hold water, capillarity. Both the pore sizes of gel microstructures and the degree of hydrophilicity of the polymers comprising each gel were quantitatively assessed and related to water holding (WH) properties, and this was the first report using such methodologies. It appeared that the degree of hydrophilicity was much more important explaining WH properties than pore size, and that future research of this kind should be carried out.