Food thickeners are food additives — usually starch- or gum-based — that increase food consistency and make it easier to consume for people with swallowing issues, a condition known as dysphagia. Thickening decreases the likelihood of choking on or inhaling food or beverages.

While there are a variety of pre-thickened products such as nutritionals on the market, thickeners will work with any food or beverage. Food thickeners are available in powder and liquid form, both of which have unique pros and cons. What type of thickener you should choose depends on what you will thicken and your desired result.

Powder Thickeners

Powder thickeners may be starch- or gum-based and made from modified vegetable starch or methylcellulose gum. Powder products are more budget-friendly than liquid thickeners. These starch-based thickeners can change some foods and beverages' appearance and/or texture, though.

Starch-based thickeners

  • Mix them into virtually any liquid, though they will cause carbonated liquids such as soft drinks to lose their fizz
  • May form lumps if not immediately and thoroughly mixed in
  • It can be more difficult than liquid thickeners to mix into high-protein shakes or hot drinks
  • May cause clear liquids to appear cloudy
  • Can cause a slightly grainy texture when added to some liquids
  • Most products take 1-3 minutes to reach desired consistency; check the manufacturer's instructions for your product
  • May thicken more over time and are best when consumed right away
  • Least expensive type of thickener
  • Most products have a shelf life of up to 36 months if unopened; check the labeling for specifics.
  • Safe for diabetics
  • Modified corn starch is usually the thickening agent
  • Can thicken foods; check manufacturer’s recipe

Gum-Based Thickeners - Xanthan or Cellulose Gums

  • Xanthan gum is likely to form lumps when properly used
  • It can be more difficult than liquid thickeners to mix into high-protein shakes or hot drinks
  • May take up to 5 minutes to reach desired consistency
  • Do not generally continue to thicken after 5 minutes, so it is possible to thicken liquids ahead of time
  • Slightly more expensive than starch-based thickeners but more versatile
  • Most products have a shelf life of up to 36 months if unopened (there may be some variation; check the specifics of the product you're considering)
  • Safe for diabetics

Gel Type Thickeners

Xanthan gum is usually the core ingredient in gel thickeners, and the properties are similar to gum-type powders. They require whisking into liquid, and they will not continue to thicken when sitting. Unlike starch-based thickeners, they don't change the flavor of foods and beverages.

Liquid Thickeners and Pre-Thickened Products

Liquid food thickeners are more expensive than their powder cousins but are easier to use and are more versatile (they’re a better option for carbonated beverages, for example). Liquid thickeners will not affect the appearance of foods and beverages and will not impart a grainy texture. While pre-thickened products are more expensive than making your own, their sheer convenience can make them the best option for many people. In addition, pre-thickened products will be more consistent in quality than their homemade counterparts.

Benefits of ready-to-drink products

  • Extremely convenient
  • Do not require mixing — open and use
  • Do not require time to thicken; pre-thickened products are advertised consistently right out of the box
  • Will not change consistency over time
  • Many popular products such as juices, milk, and even water available
  • Options for pureed heat-and-eat meals and individual foods available

Drawbacks of ready-to-drink products

  • Are more expensive than powder, gel, or liquids used to thicken your own foods
  • Many products are not reheatable — heat may change the consistency
  • Clear liquids may appear cloudy
  • Consistency may be slightly thicker chilled than at room temperature