Swallowing difficulties — also known as dysphagia — can occur for many reasons, such as stroke, disease, or simply due to aging. People with dysphagia may use thickening agents to help consume food in an easy and safe manner. Here’s what you should know.
What is a Thickening Agent?
Thickening agents, more commonly known as food thickeners or simply “thickeners,” are substances added to beverages and liquid foods like soups to make them easier to swallow.
Thickening agents can be added to nearly any liquid or semi-liquid food or beverage, from soups to fruit juices to plain water. Thickeners are divided into three categories based on the consistency they create in the food or drink. These categories are:
- Nectar-thick – Nectar-thick liquids are only slightly thicker than usual, about the consistency of fruit nectars like peach or apricot. They are easy to pour but present less of a choking hazard than plain liquids.
- Honey-thick liquids have a thicker consistency, more like honey or very thick syrup. Honey-thick liquids are difficult to pour but still not solid in consistency.
- Spoon-thick – Food and beverages thickened to this consistency won’t pour at all, but instead are semi-solid and similar to pudding in texture.
Who Uses Food Thickeners and Why?
While anyone can have a swallowing disorder, the people most commonly affected are the elderly. As we age, we lose muscle tone and strength, including the muscles that allow us to swallow.
If the muscles become too weak, that can lead to food or drinks “going down the wrong pipe,” which can cause choking or even pneumonia. Food thickeners slow down the rate at which liquids flow, making it less likely for them to be inhaled.
Other groups who may need to use food thickeners include people with spinal cord injuries, dementia, people living with Parkinson’s disease, and those who have suffered a stroke.
What Are the Most Common Thickeners?
Food thickeners may be either starch-based or gum-based. Starch-based thickeners most often feature modified corn starch as their main ingredient.
Starch-based thickeners have a long track record and are relatively inexpensive, but they may have a less appealing appearance and texture than their gel-based counterparts. Starch-based thickeners are available in both powder and liquid form.
Gum-based thickeners are a newer product and use xanthan or cellulose gum. They result in a more stable consistency (starch-based thickeners continue to thicken the longer they sit) and can also be heated or frozen. Gum-based thickeners don’t change the flavor of food, lack the occasional graininess of starch-based thickeners, and don’t cause clear liquids to become cloudy, making them the best choice for a water thickener. Gum-based thickeners are available in powder or gel form.
What Is the Best Thickener for Dysphagia?
Which thickener is best depends on your taste (starch-based thickeners can change the flavor of some things), the foods you’re thickening, and whether you plan to store thickened foods for later use.
Read our more in-depth discussion of the pros and cons of each type of thickener at the bottle of our thickener page, and discuss with your doctor which option is the best choice for you.
Check out Simply Medical for all your healthcare products and information.