Using natural thickeners to achieve clean label products
Baker-Perrett - August 2020
If you’re like most people, then picking up a product to find unfamiliar, chemically synthesised ingredients on the back is a big turn-off – it may even dissuade you from purchasing it. You’d probably prefer to see ingredients that are easily recognised, understood and pronounced. We call this ‘clean label’: a popular consumer-driven movement that sees the return of ‘real food’ and transparency through authenticity.
For this reason, manufacturers are seeking to replace artificial ingredients with those from more natural
sources that will appeal to consumers. But that’s no easy task. Many key functions in the foods we eat
are performed by chemically synthesised ingredients, and for a good reason - so finding natural alternatives that work as well is a real challenge.
On the hunt for natural thickeners
As part of our research, we’ve been evaluating the performance of plant-based food ingredients against
existing additives. Our recent study investigated the potential of using sorghum, millet and chickpea
flour as thickeners in the filling of apple pies when compared to refined starch (the pies’ usual thickening agent).
Why is starch an effective thickener? Because, when heated, this carbohydrate gelatinises, causing the
starch granules to absorb water and expand – significantly increasing viscosity. Sorghum, millet and
chickpea all contain a significant amount of starch, so we attempted to thicken the filling of an apple pie by incorporating these ingredients as flours. The added benefit is that these flours also contain micronutrients which may further promote good health.
What we found
Of the three flours tested, sorghum showed the greatest potential as an alternative thickener in
processed foods. It absorbed the most water and formed the most viscous gel when tested on a rapid visco
analyser. Millet followed closely, and other rheometry analysis showed that they both demonstrated rheological properties similar to refined starch when added in at elevated levels.
In layman’s terms, this means manufacturers could reformulate their apple pie’s filling with one of these
alternative flours to achieve a similar gelling effect as seen with refined starch - assuming about three
times more of one of these flours is added. Better yet, they could substitute ‘modified starch’ with ‘millet flour’ on this product’s ingredients list, increasing its appeal to consumers looking for ‘cleaner’ label products.
But what about the chickpea flour?
As a thickener, the chickpea flour didn’t perform as well as the others that were tested. However, what
we did observe was its ability to form a strong gel structure that didn’t easily breakdown. Why? Well,
unlike the other two materials tested, chickpea contains a high amount of protein (about 20%), so we believe this protein interacted with the starch granules creating a starch-protein gel network. More testing would be required to confirm this hypothesis.
Manufacturers could potentially find a use for this strong gelling behaviour in other specific
applications. However, it’s worth noting that after testing, the apple filling containing chickpea flour
underwent ‘syneresis’: a process in which the gel network contracts, ultimately squeezing out some of the water.
Beyond sorghum, millet and chickpea
The results we found for these flours may apply to a number of other pseudo-cereals and ancient grains,
widening the industry’s choice of potential alternative ingredients to use. Next, our research will focus
on the functionality of novel ingredients in doughs and batters.
How can we help you?
Whether you’re looking to replace artificial ingredients with those from more natural sources or you’re
seeking support with product innovation or reformulation to meet nutrition and health targets, contact us
to find out how we can help. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org
orcall our switchboard on +44(0)1386 842000 and they will be happy to direct
your call to the
Keep up with this project by visiting the
This article was first published by Food Spark.
Jo is leader of the Food and Drink Microstructure section of the Product Innovation Department. Jo's main roles include product
assessment, with a focus on the physical properties of food products and ingredient functionality.
You may also be interested in