TIC Gums in Harford County is perhaps the biggest privately owned player in an invisible part of the food industry.
It's not chewing gum, though the company does get some visitors who assume that's what it makes. The name refers to a different kind of gum — the type known as hydrocolloids, which hold the ingredients in your ranch dressing together and influence the way food feels in your mouth. The natural additives give many products their texture and consistency.
"Just about anything you buy in the grocery store needs some level of it," said Greg Andon, the company's president. "We're involved with a high percentage of the new product development going on in the food industry."
It's a growth niche. The company's expanding.
TIC just opened a 200,000-square-foot operations center within walking distance of its Belcamp headquarters and manufacturing complex, a short drive from the research-and-development shop it launched in White Marsh five years ago. The warehouse has extra space to accommodate future manufacturing needs.
The company also is building a production facility in China to serve that market. It has a sales and warehouse operation in Mexico, as well as facilities in Malaysia and the United Kingdom, and it relies on a web of distributors to reach customers around the world.
The industry is dominated by big multinationals such as DuPont and Dow Chemical, many of whom grew their hydrocolloid business by gobbling up smaller players. TIC, though, remains family-owned.
"I can't think of anyone of their size that's still privately owned," said Dennis Seisun, a hydrocolloid-industry consultant and publisher of the Quarterly Review of Food Hydrocolloids. "TIC is definitely a force to contend with."
He's sure the company has had suitors. But it's "fervently independent," he said.
The company jealously guards its information, and not just the research and development. Officials won't reveal annual revenue. (Seisun guesstimated that it's at least $60 million.) These days TIC leaders won't even say how many people they employ, though they told state economic development officials two years ago that they had about 100 workers and were adding more.
"We've done a really good job of not allowing our competitors to know quite how big we are, so we're really careful about that," said Andon, whose family owns the company.
TIC products are in beverages, dressings, sauces, candies, baked goods, meats and nutritional products such as protein bars, identified on the ingredient label by names such as guar gum and carrageenan. The company uses roots, tree saps, seeds, seaweeds and other plants for its hydrocolloids.
They're a tiny part of the ingredient list — generally making up 0.1 or 0.2 percent of the food products they're in, Andon said — but play an outsized role. Texture matters in food.
"A lot of times when someone doesn't like a food, it's the texture they don't like," Andon said.
Food producers use hydrocolloids to cut down on costs and to improve the manufacturing process, Seisun said. They also turn to the ingredients when they're trying to make their products healthier by removing sugar and oil, both of which are important to texture, not just taste.
Because the raw materials are grown around the world, drought and political instability can affect their price and availability, said Aida Jebens, a principal analyst in market-information firm IHS' chemical division. Sometimes spiking demand from other industries can press prices up for food companies, too. Guar, for instance, is used by natural gas producers in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Such disruption drives research and development.
"The hydrocolloid manufacturers are always looking for substitutes," Jebens said.
TIC dates back to 1909, when it was the Tragacanth Importing Co. — the name refers to a type of tree sap. It's a product the firm has not sold for a long time, thus the switch to an acronym.
Originally based in New York, TIC moved to Maryland in the late 1980s in search of cheaper land for expansion and — critical for a company importing raw materials from around the world — port access.
Jim Richardson, Harford's economic development director, said TIC is one of the county's largest manufacturers — he knows enough about its complex to feel confident about that. It's part of a cluster of local food operations, including spicemaker McCormick & Co., which has a large distribution center in Belcamp.
Spicemaking is easier to grasp than hydrocolloid production. But TIC has had years to come up with consumer-friendly explanations.
Richardson chuckled as he recalled what company officials said when he asked what, exactly, they did: "They make the milkshake frothier."