Low Carb Thickeners and Cornstarch Substitutes for Keto Diet
If you’ve ever tried to replicate some of your favorite high-carbohydrate meals into ones that are ketogenic friendly, then you know it takes a bit of work. Unfortunately, some of the taste doesn’t always transfer over when you take out the ingredients that are bad but taste good. Thickening agents such as cornstarch are hard to leave out if you’re looking for a recipe that’s as close to the real thing as possible.
Using ketogenic thickening substitutes for some of your favorite recipes doesn’t mean you have to suffer through a bland meal. We’ve put together a list of the best low-carb thickening agents to add to your keto-friendly meals so you can enjoy soups, stews, smoothies, and chili again without racking up the carbs.
Consult this list the next time you need a replacement for cornstarch, flour, and other thickening agents in your recipes.
What Are Thickening Agents And What Are They Used For?
A thickening agent is any ingredient that is added to a recipe for the purpose of making it thicker, shiner, or to change its texture. It can be the banana or yogurt in your smoothie, the ice cream in your milkshake, the flour in your soup, the gelatin in your pudding, or the cornstarch in your gravy.
Cornstarch is one of the most popular thickening agents. It’s a powder that is derived from corn, which makes it off limits on the keto diet. Cornstarch is made by extracting the outer bran and germ from corn kernels and leaving behind the endosperm, which is then made into a powder.
When heated, cornstarch is good at absorbing liquid, which makes it an ideal ingredient to add to your soups, gravies, and stews to make them thicker. In addition to changing the texture and thickness of your food, many thickeners can be used as a preservative to extend the shelf life of your food. Other commonly used thickening agents include wheat flour, potato starch, and rice flour.
As you can see, the problem with traditional thickening agents is that they are high in carbs or contain inflammatory ingredients that should be avoided because they provide empty calories. Research shows that corn and other grains are highly inflammatory, so you may want to avoid them even if you aren’t trying to eat low-carb (1).
Luckily, there are plenty of keto-friendly thickening agents that you can use to make your foods creamy and delicious without overindulging in empty calories. In fact, most of the thickening agents on our list contribute to the nutritional content of the dish they are added to, which makes them a smart choice even if you aren’t a low-carb dieter.
Here are some keto-friendly and low-carb thickening agents that you can add to your low-carb shopping list and use to recreate your favorite low-carb meals.
Keto-Friendly Thickening Agents
If you have been avoiding pudding, gravy, and soups or stews on the ketogenic diet because of the flour or cornstarch added to them, then this list can be your savior. Choose from one of the following thickening agents the next time you want to change up the texture of your food while keeping it low-carb. We’ll provide a breakdown of each ingredient, what it is, and how to use it in your cooking, baking, or frying.
#1. Konjac Glucomannan Powder
Glucomannan is a dietary fiber that is extracted from the root of the konjac plant, which is otherwise known as the elephant yam.
Research shows that glucomannan travels through the digestive system nearly unchanged and is highly fermented by bacteria in the colon. In other words, it contributes to the good bacteria in your gut, like most fibers do. It can absorb up to 50 times its weight in water, which makes it one of the most aggressive dietary fibers out there (2).
Because of its ability to soak up water and act as a dietary fiber, you can use Konjac glucomannan powder as a thickening agent in your keto foods without increasing the carbohydrate count.
Konjac powder or flour is made by taking the dry konjac corms or the part of the plant that grows underground and grinding them down into a fine powder. You can also use konjac jelly or gum to thicken your foods.
Research shows that konjac glucomannan powder has the following health benefits:
- Can help control blood sugar levels and manage diabetes (3, 4)
- Can help you lose weight (5)
- Can lower cholesterol levels (6, 7)
- Can alleviate constipation and promote regularity (8, 9)
- Can be used topically to improve skin health (10)
- Helps encourage wound healing (11)
How to use it: Konjac glucomannan powder is available in capsule, powder, and jelly form. Most people take it as a supplement to increase their fiber content, assist with bowel regularity, bring down their cholesterol, or to control their weight or blood sugar levels.
Research shows that you can safely take three grams of Konjac glucomannan powder daily for the best health results (12). However, if you’re using it as a thickening agent for your food only, then you don’t need that much.
We recommend mixing a small amount into water first to make sure it blends well before adding it to the rest of the ingredients in your keto dish. You can use Konjac glucomannan powder in place of cornstarch for baked goods, gravies, soups or stews.
Avoid adding too much water to the recipe as this may dilute the taste. Remember that Konjac glucomannan powder is very good at absorbing water (it can absorb up to 50 times its weight), so a little bit goes a long way.
#2. Xanthan Gum
Xanthan gum is one of the more popular thickening agents used in a wide variety of gluten-free foods.
Xanthan gum acts as a natural emulsifier to help thicken foods and make them more shelf stable. It’s made by fermenting a sugar using the Xanthomonas campestris strain of bacteria. When the sugar is completely fermented, a gooey or liquid substance forms. An alcohol molecule is then added to the liquid substance and it turns into a powder, which is the same powder you see being sold in bulk at the grocery store.
Adding xanthan gum to a liquid base causes it to dissolve and form a thicker substance. It works similar to gluten. However, because xanthan gum is gluten-free, you can use it in place of wheat flour to thicken soups, stews, and gravies.
Chemically, xanthan gum is considered a soluble fiber, which means that you can also take it in supplement form to aid in digestive health, control blood sugar and weight, and keep you full for longer periods. Because it acts as a fiber in your body, xanthan gum is calorie-free and your body passes it through your digestive system virtually unchanged without absorbing any of its nutrients. You can also use xanthan gum to help enhance your gut flora by feeding the good bacteria that are already in there.
Here are some proven benefits of xanthan gum:
- Lowers blood sugar without causing digestive symptoms (13)
- Reduces cholesterol (14)
- Can be used to fight cancer (15)
- Helps you lose weight by keeping you full (16)
- Helps ease constipation and promotes digestive health (17)
How to use it: Xanthan gum is very easy to find in the grocery store by checking near the baking aisle. You can use it just about anywhere you would use gluten or cornstarch to help bind your ingredients together and help keep purees from separating.
We recommended adding a small amount such as ⅛ of a teaspoon per quart to your liquid ingredients. Make sure you blend the ingredients together well or else they will stick or clump together. You can also use it to make keto pudding or sauce thickener as in this Keto Mongolian Beef recipe.
#3. Guar Gum
Guar gum is a powder made from the endosperm of the seeds of a legume called guar beans (18).
It’s a polysaccharide comprised of several mannose and galactose molecules that are bonded together. You can find it in foods such as conventional ice cream, yogurt, salad dressings, kefir, soup, cheese, sauces, gravies and more.
Because it’s soluble and able to absorb water easily, it can be used as a gluten-free gel-like thickening agent in most recipes. However, because it’s derived from a legume, many strict keto dieters find it controversial.
Because it’s high in dietary fiber, guar gum travels through the digestive tract mostly unabsorbed and contributes to the overall health of your gut flora, which makes it a smart choice instead of gluten or cornstarch as a thickener.
Here is the calorie breakdown per one ounce serving of guar gum (19):
- 97 calories
- 1.4 grams of fat
- 24 grams of carbs (0 grams net carbs)
- 24 grams of fiber
- 0 grams sugar
- 0.8 grams of protein
Health benefits of guar gum include:
- Alleviates constipation and promotes bowel regularity (20)
- Helps promote diabetes and blood sugar control and management (21)
- Promotes weight loss
- Helps you feel full for longer so you eat fewer calories (22)
- Helps reduce LDL cholesterol (23)
How to use it: Guar gum can be used interchangeably with xanthan gum. It’s available in powder form at just about any grocery store. You can use it in your baked goods, soups, stews, sauces, and salad dressings. Be sure to mix it in with a bit of oil or water before adding it to the rest of your ingredients and stir well to make sure it blends well.
#4. Almond Flour
Almond flour is one of the most versatile thickeners you can use. It’s a good idea to keep a bag of almond meal (also known as almond flour) on hand for whenever you need a good gluten-free alternative. You can use it in place of gluten in just about any recipe. Plus, you’ll get the added benefit of healthy fats and lots of fiber to fill you up.
You can make your own almond flour at home. This is especially easy if you already make your own homemade almond milk. Start by soaking your almonds in water overnight. The next morning, drain and rinse your almonds. And add them to a high-speed blender along with two cups of fresh water for every cup of almonds. Blend on high speed for several minutes. Separate the almond pulp from the milk using a nut bag.
Use your almond milk in a smoothie. Then preheat your oven to 200 degrees. Spread the almond meal onto a greased baking sheet or line it with aluminum foil. Bake the almond pulp in the oven for two hours. If you have a dehydrator, then you can use that instead of the oven to prepare the almond flour. Once cooled, you’re free to bake with the almond flour or use it in your dishes as a thickener.
How to use it: try using almond flour in place of regular enriched flour anytime you bake. It’s great when combined with coconut flour because the two flavors and textures enhance one another. You can also use almond flour as a breading to coat your chicken or fish in before deep frying it. Dip your meat in an egg wash first and then into a bowl of almond flour. Fry the meat as you normally would. It’s great to use as a breadcrumb substitute and thickener for soups and stews.
Check out these recipes that use almond flour to get you started:
- Zucchini fries with almond flour
- Almond flour bread recipe
- Almond and coconut flour chocolate chip cookies
#5. Chia seeds
Chia seeds are a bit tricky to use as a thickener because they are a seed, but you can buy them in powder form and use them like you would use xanthan gum or guar gum. Many vegans use chia seeds mixed with water in place of eggs in baking dishes as a binding agent to hold their ingredients together, and it works great!
As far as thickening agents go, chia seeds are one of the healthiest you can use. They are high in healthy fats and contain almost as many grams of fiber as they do carbs, which means they are extremely low in net carbs and absorb water really well. It’s one of the best low-carb high-fiber foods.
Here is the nutritional breakdown of a one-ounce serving of chia seeds (24):
- 137 calories
- 8.6 grams of fat
- 12.3 grams of carbs (1.7 grams net carbs)
- 10.6 grams of fiber
- 0 grams of sugar
- 4.4 grams of protein
Health benefits of chia seeds include the following:
- High in antioxidants to reduce inflammation and the risk of chronic disease (25)
- Contains the soluble fiber glucomannan to promote weight loss (26)
- High in fiber and omega 3 fatty acids
- Helps lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure (27, 28, 29)
- Helps stabilize blood sugar levels and can be used to manage diabetes (30)
How to use it: you can buy chia seeds at almost any grocery store, but we recommend buying the powder form of chia seeds if you plan on using it as a thickener. They are very high in fiber, which means that they will absorb water and liquid to help thicken any dish you use them in. You can also buy the regular seeded version and use it in combination with almond or coconut flours in your baking or as breading for meats before frying them.
Like chia seeds, flaxseed comes in whole, ground, and powder form. When using flax seeds as a thickener, be sure to get the ground flaxseed meal, which makes it easier to use in baking, frying, and to sprinkle in liquid dishes to make them thicker.
Flaxseeds are high in omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, and fiber, which makes them an excellent thickening agent to add to your foods. They can be used as a keto-friendly fiber supplement.
They have a nutty flavor, so keep this in mind when pairing them with soups and stews. They would probably work better in baked goods than they would in stews, dressings, and gravies.
Here is the nutritional breakdown of a one-ounce serving of flaxseeds (31):
- 150 calories
- 11.8 grams of fat
- 8.1 grams of carbs (0.5 net carbs)
- 7.6 grams of fiber
- 0 grams sugar
- 5.1 grams of protein
Health benefits of flaxseed include the following:
- High in vitamins, minerals, omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants and fiber to reduce inflammation
- Contains lignans that help ward off chronic diseases, such as cancer (32)
- Reduces cholesterol and blood pressure (33, 34)
- Helps control blood sugar levels (35)
- Provides a good source of protein
How to use it: there are endless ways to incorporate flaxseed into your diet. You can sprinkle some into meat patties to make meatloaf in place of breadcrumbs and bake in the oven. You can also use flaxseed meal in place of traditional breading to fry your meats in.
As we mentioned before, the nutty flavor makes them ideal to bake ketogenic-friendly sweet treats with. Try making your own homemade flaxseed tortilla chips to dip guacamole in.
#7. Heavy Cream/Heavy Whipped Cream
You might be surprised to learn that many soups add heavy cream to their base to make them thicker. Tomato basil, cream of broccoli, and loaded potato soup are just a few of the most common ones.
Cream makes a great soup base because it’s thick and creamy and instantly turns your soup from bland into a decadent treat. Plus, it’s low in carbs and high in good fat, which makes it ideal on the ketogenic diet.
There are so many different ways to use heavy cream or heavy whipped cream in your recipes. Use it to make your own ketogenic ice cream or milkshakes. You can use it to make ketogenic yogurt, smoothies, and even cheese dips. Make your own homemade version of your favorite cream-based soups using heavy cream and xanthan gum in place of enriched flour.
Check out these recipes to get you inspired:
How to use it: Because it contains no fiber, you can’t expect heavy cream to absorb water the way a thickener with fiber would. But you can use heavy cream heated or unheated to help make any dish instantly creamier, which also adds to the thickness of the dish when you whip it. It’s also great in just about any ketogenic dessert. Be sure to purchase a heavy cream that does not contain carrageenan, which is a food additive that causes digestive upset.
#8. Cream Cheese
Cream cheese can be used in many dishes just like heavy cream as a thickening agent in most recipes. Because cream cheese is thicker, it would work better in baked goods or snacks. You can even use it in no-bake snacks, such as energy balls or bars. On the other hand, heavy cream is thinner, so it works better in soups.
You can use cream cheese as a replacement for cornstarch in many recipes. Add it to the dry ingredients of baked goods batter, such as pancakes, brownies or pie fillings. You can also use cream cheese to make a cream-based sauce, dressing, or mayonnaise. You can even use it in gravy in place of enriched flour for a decadent finish on an old classic.
How to use it: Try using cream cheese in salad dressings and sauces. Speaking of sauces, check out the sauce in this creamy garlic butter Tuscan shrimp recipe. Cream cheese can get hard after it’s been refrigerated for a long time, so try taking it out of the fridge and allowing it to heat up to room temperature before using it. Or you can heat it up along with the other ingredients of your foods, such as in sauces.
We don’t have to tell you that cheesecake is delicious. Try using cream cheese as a thickener in one of these recipes:
Or you can make your own cream cheese by using our recipe here with only two ingredients.
#9. Coconut Cream
Coconut cream is ideal on the ketogenic diet because it’s high in good fat and contains virtually no carbs. Coconut cream is one of the most delicious ways to use coconut. You can use it in place of heavy cream or cream cheese for a nutty finish.
Coconut cream would work best in smoothies or in place of yogurt, cream cheese, and heavy cream bases. Use it to make your own homemade ice cream or add coconut whipped cream to desserts.
How to use it: Coconut cream mixes well with spices and bolder flavors. Try adding heavy coconut cream to Indian dishes with curry spice for a decadent sauce and drizzle over meat.
Or use it in your coffee in place of MCT oil (although MCT oil is very good in coffee!) or refined sugar. You’ll want to beat the coconut cream using a whisk for a few minutes to get it to thicken up. Once it’s nice and thick, you can use coconut cream to your favorite fat bomb recipes.
#10. Psyllium Husk
Psyllium husk isn’t as tasty as coconut cream, but it makes for a great thickener because it’s high in fiber and is extremely healthy for your gut.
Psyllium husk is the fiber from the Plantago ovata plant, which is also known as ispaghula. It functions as a bulk-forming laxative, which means that it adds bulk to your stool to make it easier to pass.
Psyllium husk is extremely high in fiber, which makes it a great thickening agent as it absorbs lots of water and adds bulk to food. But it can also cause digestive upset if you use too much of it. So be sure to only add a little bit at a time until you get used to it. You can buy it in powder form to add to your soups, stews, gravies, and baked goods.
Health benefits of psyllium husk include the following:
- Helps lower cholesterol in obese people (36)
- Helps control blood sugar levels (37, 38)
- Treats constipation and promotes bowel regularity (39)
Here is the nutritional breakdown of one ounce of psyllium husk powder (40):
- 106 calories
- 0 grams of fat
- 24.9 grams of carbs (3.1 grams net carbs)
- 21.8 grams of fiber
- 0 grams sugar
- 0 grams protein
How to use it: psyllium husk is commonly found in many laxative products. We recommend using the powder form in small amounts when you use it as a thickener. It has a bland taste, which makes it ideal to use in lots of different recipes. It’s especially good in baked dishes because of its rough texture that holds up well when heated to high temperatures.
How Much Thickener Should I Use?
Now that you know which thickeners are commonly used on the keto diet, you’ll need to know how much to use. Here is a helpful chart when it comes to adding the proper amount of thickening agents to your favorite foods.
You’ll want to play around with the amount you use to get the consistency right. If you want a thicker dish, then add more thickener. If you don’t want it too thick, then only add a little bit.
We recommend adding a small amount at a time and gradually increasing the amount while stirring continuously to make sure no clumps form.
The following chart is recommended for powder thickeners such as xanthan gum, guar gum, and non-gluten flours.
Keep in mind that certain flavors might not mix. Xanthan and guar gum tend to have a neutral flavor that can be added to just about anything while chia seeds, almond flour, and flaxseeds might not mix well in soups or dressings.
Texture is also important. Cream-based thickeners are best used in desserts or soups where a creamy undertone is ideal.
- Keto cookies: ¼ to ½ teaspoon per cup
- Keto cakes and pancakes: ¼ to ½ teaspoon per cup
- Keto muffins: ½ to ¾ teaspoon per cup
- Keto bread: one to 1 and ½ teaspoons per cup
- Keto pizza dough: two teaspoons per cup
- Keto salad dressings: ¼ to ½ teaspoon per cup
- Keto stews: one to two teaspoons per quart
- Keto gravy: one to two teaspoons per quart
- Keto pudding: one to two teaspoons per quart
Most conventional thickeners contain flour, gluten, and other high carb, highly inflammatory ingredients and empty calories. Luckily, there are many keto-friendly thickening agents available. We recommend using xanthan gum and guar gum as your go-to replacements for cornstarch and gluten in most recipes because they have a neutral flavor and color.
Non-gluten flours such as flaxseed, chia, and almond flours are ideal in baked good dishes while cream cheese and heavy cream/coconut creams go well in deserts and soups. Remember that a little bit goes a long way and overusing high-fiber thickeners that absorb lots of water may also cause digestive upset.
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