Thickeners are food additives designed to improve some physical characteristics of the product, such as appearance, consistency and stability over time. Thanks to thickeners, puddings , all kinds of sauces , slices , soups, frozen ready meals , yoghurts and many other products, become more dense, viscous and palatable in the eyes of the consumer, who certainly would not like to be faced with with ketchup , mayonnaise or yogurt reduced to soup.
Are thickening additives dangerous to health?
Thickening additives are mostly of natural origin and although they are the most used from a quantitative point of view, there is generally no toxicological risk attributable to their ingestion. Not surprisingly, for most of these substances no limit has been set for the maximum daily intake.
The main problems could derive from hypersensitivity reactions towards some thickeners, reported above all with regard to guar flours and tragacanth .
As regards modified starches (thickeners deriving from natural starch of corn , wheat , potatoes, etc., treated with chemical, physical or biological means), if they contain gluten , the generic name must be completed with an indication of the origin specific vegetable (eg “modified wheat starch”, ” modified rice starch ” etc.).
Generally, thickeners have a vegetable origin or are obtained by semi-synthesis; consequently they can be consumed by all religious groups, vegans and vegetarians .
Possible animal origin is attributable to gelatin ( isinglass ), often obtained from animal carcasses, obviously with the necessary sterilization procedures.
Thickeners and Quality
Does the use of thickeners improve or deteriorate the quality of the food to which they are added?
Although they are not harmful substances, thickeners very often contribute to mask qualitative deficiencies of raw materials. For example, a ketchup made with unripe tomatoes , therefore low in pectin , thanks to the thickeners can take on the same consistency as a ketchup made with ripe tomatoes, already rich in this natural thickener. It is no coincidence that pectin is used as a thickening / gelling agent (E 440), especially in the home production of fruit jams and jellies . Other natural thickeners include agar agar , gum arabic , carrageenan , carob seed flourand Tara seed flour , although the list (see table below) is much longer.
The action mechanism of thickeners is simple and linked to the ability to absorb or bind water, swelling and making the preparation more dense and creamy. The intensive use of thickeners therefore contributes to impoverishing the nutritional power of food products, which come out not only poorer in fats , proteins and carbohydrates , but also in micronutrients such as vitamins and mineral salts .
In addition to keeping certain food preparations compact, emulsifiers and thickeners make it possible to replace caloric macronutrients such as carbohydrates (starches and sugars) and fats with water ; they are therefore widely used in so-called ” light foods “.
Abbreviations used in the list
- PRA – additives that can cause allergic reactionsin susceptible individuals
- GMO? – additivesthat can also be produced with the use of genetically modified organisms
- OA – additives of animal origin
E400 Alginic acid (thickener) (stabilizer) (gelling agent) (emulsifier)
E401 Sodium alginate (thickener) (stabilizer) (gelling agent) (emulsifier)
E402 Potassium alginate (thickener) (stabilizer) (gelling agent) (emulsifier)
E403 Alginate of ammonium (thickener) (stabilizer) (emulsifier)
E404 alginate calcium (thickener) (stabilizer) (gelling agent) (emulsifier)
E405 propane-1,2-diol (propylene glycol alginate) (thickener) (stabilizer) (emulsifier)
E406 Agar-agar (thickener) (gelling agent) (stabilizer)
E407 Carrageenan (thickener) (stabilizer) (gelling agent) (emulsifier) (PRA)
E407a AlgaeEucheuma processed (thickener) (stabilizer) (gelling agent) (emulsifier)
E410 Locust bean gum (thickener) (stabilizer) (gelling agent) (emulsifier)
E412 Guar gum (thickener) (stabilizer)
E413 tragacanth (thickener) (stabilizer ) (emulsifier) (PRA)
E414 Acacia gum ( gum arabic ) (thickener) (stabilizer) (emulsifier) (PRA)
E415 Xanthan gum (thickener) (stabilizer) (GMO?)
E416 Karaya gum (thickener) ( stabilizer) (emulsifier) (PRA)
E417 Tara gum (thickener) (stabilizer)
E418 Gellan gum (thickener) (stabilizer) (emulsifier)