A thickening agent or thickener is a substance which can increase the viscosity of a liquid without substantially changing its other properties. Edible thickeners are commonly used to thicken sauces, soups, and puddings without altering their taste; thickeners are also used in paints, inks, explosives, and cosmetics.
Different thickeners may be more or less suitable in a given application, due to differences in taste, clarity, and their responses to chemical and physical conditions. For example, for acidic foods, arrowroot is a better choice than cornstarch, which loses thickening potency in acidic mixtures. At (acidic) pH levels below 4.5, guar gum has sharply reduced aqueous solubility, thus also reducing its thickening capability. If the food is to be frozen, tapioca or arrowroot are preferable over cornstarch, which becomes spongy when frozen.
Functional flours are produced from specific cereal variety (wheat, maize, rice or other) conjugated to specific heat treatment able to increase stability, consistency and general functionalities. These functional flours are resistant to industrial stresses such as acidic pH, sterilisation, freeze conditions, and can help food industries to formulate with natural ingredients. For the final consumer, these ingredients are more accepted because they are shown as "flour" in the ingredient list.
Many thickening agents require extra care in cooking. Some starches lose their thickening quality when cooked for too long or at too high a temperature; on the other hand, cooking starches too short or not hot enough might lead to an unpleasant starchy taste or cause water to seep out of the finished product after cooling. Also, higher viscosity causes foods to burn more easily during cooking. As an alternative to adding more thickener, recipes may call for reduction of the food's water content by lengthy simmering. When cooking, it is generally better to add thickener cautiously; if over-thickened, more water may be added but loss of flavour and texture may result.
Agar-agar produces a very clear gel with light residual taste. Gelatin sheets disperse easily with no residual taste, but powdered form may have some taste. Kappa carragreenan may include potassium chloride to improve the gelling process and produces a clear product with very little aftertaste. Iota carrageenan contains sodium chloride which improves gel formation. Sodium alginate produces a medium viscosity gel but may have some aftertaste. HM Pectin is one of the most widely used gelling agents in food processing. It reacts with some sugars and acids and sometimes includes minerals to improve gelling process. LM Pectin racts different with calcium, and is used for the preparation of low sugar jams.
Thickening agents used in cosmetics or personal hygiene products include viscous liquids such as polyethylene glycol, synthetic polymers such as carbomer (a trade name for polyacrylic acid) and vegetable gums. Some thickening agents may also function as stabilizers when they are used to maintain the stability of an emulsion. Some emollients, such as petroleum jelly and various waxes may also function as thickening agents in an emulsion.