Thickeners are widely used in many items we consume daily. Are they healthy?

Thickeners usually make up a good amount of many products when they are needed. Usually there are lots of concerns about the health implications these can have on our bodies. This stops many people from buying products that consume them?

But why do we add thickeners to food? Are there better thickeners than others? Which ones are most frequently used? Which ones are the healthiest? What side effects can they have? also can other ingredients be used to substitute the most commonly used ones?

And most importantly, what is the proportion or limit that you can have of thickeners in your daily meal or diet without having any bad impact on your health? Examples of thickeners been used by very healthy products are Sunflower oil, Soya lecithin and Psyllium Husk. 

Why We Use Thickeners?

Thickening agents work by absorbing the fluid particles without altering their chemical and physical properties.

A thickening agent is a substance primarily used in food products typically in liquid mixtures to increase their viscosity without substantially modifying their sensory characteristics like taste, colour, texture, appearance and smell. Thickeners stabilize the targeted product. Thickening agent works by absorbing the fluid particles without altering their chemical and physical properties. Thickeners are used in almost all food products but commonly consumers are unaware of their chemistry and presence.

Are Thickeners Safe to consume?

Food regulating authorities such as FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) permitted certain qualified thickeners to be used within the terms and conditions developed by the food and nutrition scientists. These authorities have the best equipment and professional for declared them as safe to consume.

250 grams of ice cream contains approximately 10 grams of guar gum.

The safety factor for thickeners consumption vary from product to product e.g: guar gum is helpful if it is used up to 12-15 grams per day as it is used in ice cream, 250 grams of ice cream contains approximately 10 grams of guar gum. So check the ingredients section before consuming products that contain thickeners, they always listed in the form of their E-codes in the ingredients section.

Rumours about thickeners?

Some consumers might think that as thickeners are not 100% natural, they might be undergoing complex chemical processes in manufacturing. So they have certain pros and cons that must be highlighted to have significant knowledge regarding the proper use of thickening agents. But the reality is that mostly allowed thickeners by competent authorities are health reliable.

How to choose the best thickening agents?

Some websites like Wikiwand  provide thickeners traceability services free of cost. Just pick the E-code present at the ingredient section and insert it, you will find every information related to that E-code. Food regulating authorities only allow healthy and reliable thickeners for human

When Are Thickening Agents Not Safe got Your Health?

For this statement, there are only two possible conditions or probabilities:

  • Consistent use of thickeners that cause allergies to our bodies. 
  • Consumption of thickeners in higher amounts than required or overdosing

How Many Types of Thickeners Are There?

There are different types of thickeners for each food product. The type of thickener to be used depends on the purpose and type of food, as some are used to improve the colour, taste, nutritive value or even flavour. Following are the most commonly used thickening agents with their E-code known as European codes; which is written on the backside of your food package in the ingredients section.

These are the best thickeners with almost negligible side effects when used under the recommended dosage approved by the food regulating authorities.

Sr.No Thickener Source E-Code Applications in Food Products
Softs drink and hard jelly sweets
Meat products, bakery products, jellies
Fruit juices, milk drinks, and jams
Gellan Gum
Desserts and dairy products
Guar Gum
Sauces, dressings and dairy products

What Are The Most Frequently Used Thickeners?

Lecithin is the most useable thickeners. Lecithin thickeners have may applications in food products. Lecithin is a yellow pigment fatty substance which generally contains phospholipids group and it is found in plants and animals.

There are different types of lecithin thickeners depend on their source. Two of them are listed below:

1- Sunflower Lecithin Thickener

It is used in sauces, soups and smoothies. Sunflower Lecithin is extracted from sunflower seeds. It is usually blended with choline; a vitamin B complex compound, before being available in the market with an expected shelf life of 1 year.

A recommended amount of 2 tablespoons provides 99% of daily choline value needed by an adult.

Choline is a very important nutrient to your body, it is not a vitamin or a hormone however it is usually classified as a vitamin B complex compound. It is an essential nutrient meaning your body requires is to function. Our livers makes just small amounts of it an therefore we need to get enough choline from other sources. It contributes to many functions in the body such as memory, gene expression, metabolism, liver function, brain development.

Furthermore, Choline is used to synthesize Acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is needed for some of the body functions just mentioned.

We will cover Choline in more depth in next articles. We mentioned importance of B12 vitamins in our previous article: What Is The Number One Missing Nutrient Missing In Diets Around The World? 

What Are The Pros and Cons of Sunflower Lecithin?

2- Soybean Lecithin Thickener

Phosphatidylcholine, a precursor of Choline, is the major component in soybean lecithin and comprises almost 80% of the total fat amount.

Soybean seeds are the source for soy lecithin thickeners. Soybean lecithin is composed of free fatty acids with minute quantities of carbohydrates or proteins. Phosphatidylcholine, a precursor of Choline, is the major component in soybean lecithin and comprises almost 80% of the total fat amount. Therefore, it has similar functions and importance to the body as we mentioned above regarding Choline. 

2% concentrated solution of soy lecithin thickeners are used for best bakery end products.

What Are The Pros and Cons of Soybean Lecithin?

Pros Cons
Sunflower Lecithin helps in lowering the cholesterol level. It cooperates to fight against cancer-causing anti-oxidants. It aids is breastfeeding, supports skin health, boosts brain function and improves digestive health
The major health risk of sunflower lecithin associated with increasing dosage consumption of sunflower lecithin that results in nausea, bloating, a bdominal pain and diarrhoea.

Thickeners Consumption Regions

The diet of consumers varies from region to region. As Subcontinent peoples like spicier foods than European so likewise thickener dose also vary. The hot market in ascending order for thickeners is North-America, Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East respectively. This order is for the overall thickeners market in the world. Thickeners used in food are the largest part of this industry (more than 30%). 

People consuming more processed food as in America and Europe are more likely to consume thickening agents as all processed foods contain minute amounts of thickeners.

In Conclusion, Everything Has Its Limit to Be Considered Safe

Thickeners have wide-spread applications in all food products. From local restaurants to multinational industries use thickening agents in their food products.

Specifically, companies fall under the legal and healthy status only allowed to produce thickeners that are safe for health. They can be prohibited in foods if they are an allergen to your body or used in excess amounts.

But everything has its limit to be considered safe. So the easiest method to interrogate thickeners is to check their E-code on internet, you will easily find their consumption dose restrictions. For example, guar gum is unreactive when daily intake is below 15 grams.