It’s hard to beat the versatility of a legume. Nutritious, tasty and cheap, there’s nothing much more satisfying than a warming black bean chilli, a fragrant red lentil dal or a pot of homemade hummus with crunchy veggies. As far as the culinary world goes, beans, lentils and pulses have few critics.
Step outside the kitchen, however, and you may be surprised to learn that a particular, lesser-known legume can be found in a huge range of products, from shampoos to laxatives and even some types of explosives. Meet the guar plant. Grown in arid and semi-arid parts of the world, such as India, Pakistan and the southern US, this sun-loving, drought-resistant plant definitely ticks the versatility box.
As with many agricultural products, however, the journey of guar from a farmer’s field to consumer product is not straightforward. And like many consumer products, inspecting the label for the list of ingredients or sustainability credentials does little to enlighten. So what, really, is the story of guar, and what role does it play in our products?
Are there legumes in my shampoo then?
“Guar is a bit like a French bean, and is eaten across India,” says Punit Gupta, India country director at TechnoServe, a non-profit organisation that helps tackle poverty. As well as being grown for local consumption, it can also be found in food items such as sauces, ice-cream and gluten-free bread. Non-food applications represent a significant proportion of the demand as well – it’s used in haircare products and creams, for example. Before you start sniffing your shampoo for a trace scent of bean, though, it’s important to note that quite a lot of processing and refining goes on before the guar finds its way on to your scalp.
The endosperm of the seeds are dried and ground into a powder known as guar gum. In food products it’s used as a thickener, emulsifier and stabiliser, and in haircare products, it conditions and softens. Carolina Cordero is the international marketing manager at Nature Box, a line of hair and body care products that has a focus on natural and sustainably sourced ingredients. “In layman’s terms,” she says, “[guar] helps you to have more beautiful hair.”
Is it common for it to be used in haircare products? “It’s really a choice,” says Cordero. “You can replace the guar with other conditioning or softening agents, but one of the reasons we chose it is because we were looking for ingredients that could be sourced more sustainably. It was an active choice for us.”
The guar supply chain
For those living in the western world, it can sometimes feel that products appear on supermarket shelves as if by magic, their long list of ingredients seemingly written in another language, and the people who produced them several worlds away. Take a peek at the label of one of Nature Box’s products, its coconut shampoo, for example, and you’ll see guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride listed among the ingredients. That probably doesn’t mean much to you or, indeed, the farming households who produce guar, many of which are located in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan. Also known as cluster beans, 80% of the world’s guar is grown in India and of that, 70% is produced in Rajasthan. For the record, guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride is simply a derivative of guar.
Gupta leads on a programme in the Bikaner region of Rajasthan, to develop the sustainable cultivation and supply chain of this cash crop, while improving the livelihoods of its farmers. TechnoServe, which is behind the project, works globally on programmes to alleviate poverty through business opportunities, particularly in rural areas. “These farmers are doing agriculture in desert-like conditions,” says Gupta. “They get less than 30cm of rainfall a year. It’s almost like sand dunes that they’re growing their crops on. And there’s no cash crop that they have available to grow apart from guar.”
In addition to helping farmers improve yields in such dry conditions through better agronomic practices, the sustainable guar initiative also helps establish farmers’ collectives and creates better market access and prices. Additionally, the scheme has socially focused goals such as training women in nutrition, sanitation and growing kitchen gardens at home.
“The broad objective is to increase farmer incomes significantly, over an extended period of time,” says Gupta. “In order to do that, our conception was that we would create a sustainable guar standard, which then moves guar from being just a commodity to a more specialised product. And given the demand for more sustainable inputs across Europe and much of the western world, the time is right to do this.”
Indeed, demand from huge consumer goods companies such as Henkel – the owner of the Nature Box brand – for natural and sustainable ingredients with traceable supply chains, creates valuable positive reinforcement for programmes such as this. Henkel works together with TechnoServe and the chemical company Solvay, a world leader in guar derivatives, to create a collaborative value chain that benefits all parties. Gupta explains that he himself and many of the other staff at TechnoServe have experience and knowledge gained through working in the private sector, which works to their advantage. “We’re able to understand private sector incentives and interests, while at the same time ensuring that we’re creating outcomes that benefit the poorest in these supply chains,” he says.
In terms of the scope of the project, about 7,000 farming households have participated. The proportion of those with which Henkel and Solvay have been involved is about 5,000. With approximately 100,000 households farming guar in the Bikaner region, this is a modest number, but Gupta says the programme’s aspiration is to reach, over time, at least 30% of the farming households in the region.
What’s in a label?
Gupta and his colleagues on the ground in Rajasthan have provided a small glimpse into what goes on behind one ingredient in that Nature Box coconut shampoo – guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride. To most consumers, such a complicated name has little meaning. But hearing about the farmers of Bikaner, the women feeding their families with their small kitchen gardens, and that families are now able to pay for their children to go to school, certainly has a humanising effect.