PEORIA — Allene Jeanes's work with sugars decades ago at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research led to the discovery of a substance in nearly every American kitchen today.

Xanthan gum may not have widespread recognition as an everyday ingredient, but the thickening agent has found a home in practically every commercially produced bottle of salad dressing, to name just one family of products it now dominates.

The line of research on sugar-derived products that Jeanes initiated has found similarly long life and continues at Peoria's ag lab today, with one recent project poised to more efficiently produce a compound critical in nature and on kitchen shelves.

Research microbiologist Chris Skory is working with the same type of lactic acid bacteria that lends tangy taste to pickles for an altogether different byproduct when used in conjunction with beets and sugarcane.

The product is a specialty sugar called isomelezitose, which has a unique ability to preserve bacteria and proteins, as proven in a naturally occurring substance that contains it in trace amounts and is known to resist rot.

"It's not a new sugar, it's actually been described as being found in honey," Skory said. "There's a lot of problems with the process (currently used to synthesize it), but we've been able to get a much better yield."

The substance has vast potential for food and pharmaceutical applications, Skory said. The isomelezitose produced at the ag lab was 1,000 times more effective than a substance currently in commercial use for the same purpose.

In addition to food and drugs, the bioprotectant could have industrial application as a paper pulp and paint additive or hydraulic fracturing compound.

"We're just now providing the compound to companies to test," Skory said. "We're working to overcome some of the barriers to scale up to industrial production."

Matt Buedel can be reached at 686-3154 or mbuedel@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @JournoBuedel.