Thickening agents, or thickeners, are hydrocolloids that increase the viscosity of a solution or mixture without significantly affecting its other properties, such as taste. Hydrocolloids are a heterogeneous group of long-chain polymers that, when dispersed in water, produce a thickening or viscous and gelling effect.
As food additives, food thickeners also stabilize food products by increasing the suspension and emulsification of colloids, including gels, sols, and emulsions.
The process of thickening involves a non-specific entanglement of polysaccharide and protein polymer chains.1 The thickening effect produced by hydrocolloids depends on several factors, including the pH and temperature of the food product as well as the hydrocolloid type and concentration.
Food thickener types
Thickeners tend to be odorless, tasteless, and because they are used in small quantities, contribute few to no calories. They are derived primarily from natural sources like plants and seaweeds. Others are produced using bacterial fermentation or chemical modification.
Although starches – all-purpose flour, cornstarch, arrowroot, and tapioca – are the most common food thickening agents, several other types exist as outlined in Table 1.
Table 1 Common thickeners and their food applications.1
|Thickener and Source||Application in Food Products|
|Gum Arabic (E414)||Hard jelly sweets and soft drinks|
|Carbo/locust bean gum (E410)||Sauces, salad dressings, fruit fillings, and ice creams|
|Guar gum (E412)||Dairy products, sauces, and dressings|
|Pectin (E440)||Jams, milk drinks, and fruit juices|
|Sodium carboxymethyl cellulose (E466)||Breads, cakes, ice creams, and fruit drinks|
|Starch (E1401-1451)||Sauces, pie fillings, sweets, and puddings|
|Seaweeds (cell walls)|
|Agars (E406)||Jellies, bakery products, sauces, and meat products|
|Alginates (E400-404)||Fruit drinks, soups, sauces, and bakery fillings|
|Carrageenans (E407)||Dairy products and meat products|
|Gellan gum (E418)||Dairy products and desserts|
|Xanthan gum (E415)||Sauces, salad dressings, and non-dairy beverages|
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Food thickeners for dysphagia management
Thickening agents have long been used in foods and drinks to promote safe and efficient swallowing for patients with dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing. The etiology of the condition can be neurological as with cerebrovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease, or it can be caused by physical obstruction, as with certain cancers, esophagitis, and peptic or esophageal strictures. Dysphagia can also be induced or exacerbated by certain medications. Consequently, dysphagia can increase the risk of pneumonia, choking, dehydration, and malnutrition – particularly among older adults.2
Commercially-available thickening products – both starch- and gum-based – are commonly used for the medical and nutritional management of patients with dysphagia to allow for improved bolus control and to help prevent aspiration.3 These products are available in powder and gel form or as pre-thickened drinks. Pre-thickened beverages – including water, coffee, tea, and juice – can range in thickness from mildly or nectar thick to moderately or honey thick.
Thickening products, especially starch-based products, are sensitive to time, acidity, and temperature, and can become more or less viscous, representing a potential safety hazard for patients prescribed a specific drink thickness for safe and efficient swallowing.
That said, the demand continues to grow for products that allow for the preparation of thickened beverages in a reliable and consistent manner that are more resistant to changes in viscosity.
Food thickener market growth
According to a research report by Market Study Report, the food thickeners market could surpass USD 12.5 billion by 2025.4
Propelling the global food thickener market growth is the compatibility of thickeners with other food additives and ingredients, expansion in product development and innovation for dysphagia management as well as accelerated use in meat, bakery, and confectionery applications.
Negative perceptions from consumers surrounding the safety of food thickeners, especially xanthan gum and carrageenan, have been suggested to hinder the food thickener market.
In either case, the beneficial characteristics of food thickeners, including ingredient emulsification and palatability, for a range of food applications will continue to fuel the market for years to come.
- Saha D, Bhattacharya S. Hydrocolloids as thickening and gelling agents in food: a critical review. J Food Sci Technol. 2010;47(6):587-597.
- Smukalla SM, Dimitrova I, Feintuch JM, Khan A. Dysphagia in the Elderly. Curr Treat Options Gastroenterol. 2017;15(3):383-396.
- Cichero JA. Thickening agents used for dysphagia management: effect on bioavailability of water, medication and feelings of satiety. Nutr J. 2013;12:54.
- Food Thickeners Market by Product, by Source, by Application, Forecast, 2019-2025. Market Study Report. https://www.marketstudyreport.com/reports/food-thickeners-market. Accessed December 12, 2019.
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