Thickening agents – a significant ingredient for the processed food industry

From synthetic to natural food ingredients

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Ever wondered why home-made ice cream is not as consistent as the one from an ice cream parlor? It’s because we usually miss out on adding the tiniest, and yet the most significant ingredient – a thickening agent. Only a few drops of a thickening agent such as seaweed or agar, or a quarter tablespoon of corn starch could make all the difference!

Thickening agents are vital to the processed food industry, specifically in the dairy and confectionery segment. A recent study by Transparency Market Research (TMR) says that the bakery and confectionery segments alone account for 33.8% of the total revenues for food thickening agents globally. The sheer abundance of these compounds in nature and easy manufacturing processes make them a favorite ingredient. According to the TMR report, the global food thickening agents’ market would grow to US$ 3,291.1 million (approximately Rs 23,000 crore) by 2028 – at a sustainable CAGR over the next ten years.

From synthetic to natural thickening agents

For many years synthetic agents dominated the global market for food thickening. They were available at unimaginably low prices that facilitated purchase in large quantities. In addition, their easy manufacturing was scalable, resulting in a win-win situation, for both manufacturers and consumers. But, as the consumption of processed food grew, gastrointestinal disease cases shot up and drew the attention of researchers in the food processing industry. Several studies in the last few years started pointing to the high levels of synthetic agents being used in the processed food industry. Not just that, studies also pointed to the constant consumption of some chemicals in processed food that may lead to severe diseases.

These apprehensions brought about stringent regulations restricting the use of synthetic thickening agents, and the food industry started looking for natural thickening agents. According to the food thickening agents’ markets study, analysts point out that more than 96% of thickening agents today are from natural sources with plant and seaweed accounting for 50% of these. By the end of 2026, synthetic thickening agents will barely generate 2% of the revenue of the global food thickening agents’ market according to their forecasts.

Vegan products are the future

Thickening agents are extracted from animals too, and approximately 25% of the total sales come from animal-based thickening agents. However, trends suggest that two factors are influencing change in the coming years. The first is the growing awareness of harm and cruelty to animals in manufacturing products made by killing animals, and the second is the decreasing animal population across the globe.

The more prominent brands in the global food thickening agents’ market have already cut down their animal-based products to focus on increasing the production of plant-based products. Large agricultural processors and food ingredient providers such as Archer Daniels Midland have kept this in mind, with their focus on starches made from corn, wheat, and tapioca used in the bakery and confectionery industry.

The first trend transforms people into vegetarians, and thus their preferred choice of food. Additionally, the growing awareness about ingredients in food products makes people say ‘no’ to products with ingredients derived from animals. Having led to several plant-based food products making their way to market, the conscious choice of food ingredients will have a direct impact on food thickening agents, too. As a result, thickening agents derived from plants and seaweed will grow in importance in the coming days.

Source: Adarsh Jain is an editor at Transparency Market Research.

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Mandeep Kaur
Technical Editor - Mandeep Kaur is working with IPP Group and holding editorial responsibilities for the IndiFoodBev and PSA Healthcare platforms. Earlier she handled editorial responsibilities of food, beverage, and agriculture publications at another publisher. A gold-medalist in M Tech (Food Technology), she has hands-on experience in operating different types of instruments related to physico-chemical testing of grains and flour. She has worked at Evalueserve in the Intellectual Property (IP) division for more than three years handling projects in the life sciences domain.

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