Doug Stetzer

With the undesirable consistency and taste of many thickened liquids, getting dysphagia patients to comply with their recommended modified diets is an ongoing challenge for skilled nursing staff, especially when those liquids are thickened with starch products that become too thick, lumpy or “murky” to enjoy — and that actually pose an increased threat of aspiration to the dysphagia patient. For years, starch has been the primary agent used for thickening beverages for patients with dysphagia. It has many drawbacks, but is cheap and readily available.   

However, as the well-documented “aging of America” is upon us, so too are recent innovations in food science. First discovered in the 1950s, the odd sounding bacteria xanthamonus campesteris secretes a thickening agent called xanthan, which gives breakfast, lunch and dinner back to the swallowing impaired. Now, store-bought water thickened with xanthan can be flavored, frozen and heated, or served straight up as a cold glass of water.

Why xanthan?

  • Xanthan thickens liquids quickly and reaches a stable viscosity.

  • Xanthan is stable, enduring varying pH levels and temperatures; it can be frozen and thawed many times before breaking down.

  • Xanthan is resistant to the enzyme amylase in saliva, lowering the risk of aspiration, whereas starch-based thickeners separate from liquids when in contact with amylase, increasing risk of aspiration.

  • Xanthan is clear when mixed with water, appearing more palatable to patients.

  • Xanthan’s texture is smooth.

In an answer to the call for a truly enjoyable nutritive and safe option for those with dysphagia, I researched dysphagia and thickening agents for years, culminating in the development of a proprietary approach to working with xanthan. Based on that proprietary approach, I developed Thick-It AquaCare H2O, a line of pre-thickened, ready-to-drink beverages, which are the most stable pre-thickened beverages currently on the market with the longest shelf-life available in the category. The clear, clean flavor and texture of the beverages make them palatable and appealing to dysphagia patients.

One long-term care facility in New York, the Amsterdam Nursing Home, has incorporated the AquaCare H2O pre-thickened water as the basis for a vast menu of drink and broth flavors. They have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from patients and staff members, as well as significant increases in consumption and hydration levels among dysphagia patients.

So, for those who work with residents with swallowing disorders, know this: dining can be enjoyable and safe, and water, tea, soup, coffee, and even a glass of wine are back on the menu for those with dysphagia. Bon appetite!

Doug Stetzer, Chief Scientist at Kent Precision Foods Group, has an extensive background in health care research and product development. He has worked in cancer therapy research, immunology and genetics, and cell biology, and has developed and patented Thick-It AquaCare H2O Beverages, a thickened beverage line for patients with dysphagia.