The next time you add salt to your French fries from a salt shaker, scoop up a cup of flour to add to your cookie dough, or stir an extra spoonful of hot chocolate mix into your cup, take a moment to appreciate the power of anti-caking agents. Found in a wide variety of powdered foods and other products, these additives are all about helping maintain a smooth and free-flowing texture, and they are today’s ingredient in the spotlight. Read on to learn more.
What are anti-caking agents?
Anti-caking agents are defined as ingredients that prevent agglomeration or consolidation in certain foods; specifically, fine-particle solids like powders. In other words, anti-caking agents help prevent the formation of lumps, or “cakes,” in these products, keeping them flowing and pouring freely.
Why do we need anti-caking agents?
To understand why we need anti-caking agents, consider some common pantry staples such as flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Left to their own devices, these dry, powdered foods slowly suck humidity out of the air over time. As this moisture is gradually absorbed, it causes the food particles to bind together, eventually forming a solid mass that prevents these foods from flowing when they are poured. Moisture absorption can also lead to lower product quality as the ingredients undergo oxidation.
Clearly, this kind of clumping seriously limits the functionality of these ingredients. Can you imagine, for example, that every time you wanted to add salt to something you were cooking, you had to chip it off or pick it apart from a solid block? Therefore, to prevent these lumps and cakes from forming, anti-caking agents are added.
How do anti-caking agents work?
Anti-caking agents can function in two different ways. One way they work is by absorbing excess moisture before the powdered ingredient itself does. To help you visualize this, think of the little packets of silica that are often included in bottles of pills. The silica helps keep the air in the bottle dry by sucking up all the moisture before it can get at the pill casings and make them sticky. The other way anti-caking agents work is by coating the food particles and thus creating a kind of barrier around the individual particles that prevents them from taking in humidity.
It’s important to note that you don’t need to use large quantities of anti-caking agents to produce the desired effect. Typically, anti-caking agents are added at less than five percent of the product’s total weight: this is enough to deliver greatly improved functionality, but not so much that the flavor or other properties of the food are affected.
Which kinds of food benefit from anti-caking agents?
A wide variety of foods can benefit from the addition of anti-caking agents. Simple powders—like flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder, as mentioned above—are some of the most common examples of foods that contain anti-caking agents, but these additives are used in a range of other, sometimes surprising, applications. For example, containers of grated or powdered parmesan cheese often include anti-caking agents to prevent the cheese from reforming into a solid block. Likewise, some spices contain anti-caking agents to both absorb moisture and to limit the mobility of oils. Other products that often contain anti-caking agents include powdered eggs, cake mixes, instant soup powders, and powders used to make vending machine coffee and hot chocolate. All these products have quite a long shelf life and are at risk of clumping up while waiting in storage to be used.
What are some examples of commonly used anti-caking agents?
Anti-caking agents can be derived or produced from either synthetic or natural sources. Some of the most common anti-caking agents include bentonite, a type of naturally occurring porous volcanic clay; calcium silicate, which is derived from chalk, limestone, or diatomaceous earth; silicon dioxide, which is the main component of sand; talc, a natural mineral made from hydrated magnesium silicate; and sodium aluminosilicate, a synthetically produced combination of sodium, aluminum, and silicon oxides.
Are anti-caking agents used in non-food products?
Interestingly, anti-caking agents are also frequently used in non-food products. Essentially, any type of product that is a powder or other fine-particle solid, or that needs to be able to flow and pour freely when used, can benefit from the addition of anti-caking agents. Some of the many non-edible applications for anti-caking agents include road salt, fertilizers, some types of cosmetics, and powdered laundry or dishwasher detergents.
Are anti-caking agents safe?
Like all other types of food additives currently in use, anti-caking agents have a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) designation from the US Food and Drug Administration. Ingredients and additives that have GRAS status have passed a rigorous evaluation, including comprehensive safety tests, and are confirmed to be safe for consumption in foods and beverages.