A little bit about thickening agents

Many different categories of food have the ability to thicken a recipe – whether it’s a smoothie, ice cream or even soup. They’re frequently based on polysaccharides (starches, vegetable gums, fibers), or proteins.

  • Starches: arrowroot, cornstarch, cassava, tapioca, potato, sago palm
  • Vegetable gums: Xanthan Gum, Cellulose Gum, Guar Gum, Locust Bean Gum, Pectin
  • Proteins: Collagen, Egg whites, gelatin, Tara Gum
  • Sugars: Agar Agar, Carrageenan

Some people might lump in ingredients such as these with harmful foodstuffs, especially when they go under pseudonyms such as: “Alginic acid (E400), sodium alginate (E401), potassium alginate (E402), ammonium alginate (E403), calcium alginate (E404)…” Yet all of these thickeners are truly just polysaccharides from natural plants! In the ones above, they are all other names for Agar and Carrageenan, which are obtained from seaweed. How cool!

And Locust Bean Gum could just as easily go by the name E410. Both names are referring to a complex carbohydrate that comes from seeds of the carob tree. Hey, don’t people put carob in cupcakes and semi-sweet morsels?

Xanthan Gum is a thickening agent that actually is a byproduct of microbial fermentation. Just as I mused in my last post, fermentation is a natural process of life that enables living organisms to breakdown glucose when they don’t have enough oxygen present.

I was curious to make this blog post because I do a lot of gluten-free baking. I wanted to know more about some of these peculiar substances that have the power to thicken, because I know that they have slightly different usages and strengths.

First up, cellulose gum… or carboxymethyl cellulose. It, too, is a viscosity thickener. They use it in many frozen dairy desserts, baked goods, and also to replace the use of egg yolks (my thought: why?). I wonder if it works like lecithin, then (which is a food ingredient used to emulsify fats with water based products.) In any event, it’s also used in products like toothpaste, margarine, paper products, and even detergents!

Guar gum comes from ground up innards of a guar bean. It has eight times the thickening power of cornstarch and has an array of other uses other than in just food. When used in the baking of pastries, it keeps crusts crisp by preventing the leakage of water from the fruit filling, called “weeping” (how sad!)

Pectin is a naturally occuring polysaccharide present in the cell walls of plants and helps to bind them together. It also allows for the plant to grow and extend. It only seems natural, then, that pectin would be used in fruit-based products like jams and jellies! However, it’s also used to stabilize acidic protein drinks (like kefir or drinkable yogurt).

What are your thoughts on food thickeners? Do you use them? If so, what kinds of things do you use them for? My favorite: smoothies!


      • Absolutely! Looking forward to your future posts 🙂


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