Have you ever heard of xanthan gum? There is lots of conflicting information out there about this common food additive, which can make it difficult to decipher whether or not you should consume it.
You’ll read everything describing xanthan gum as a “natural” health food to being a known carcinogen. So what is xanthan gum, and what is the truth behind this mysterious ingredient that seem to be in everything today?
What Is Xanthan Gum?
It is a very interesting man-made ingredient.
What’s xanthan gum structure like?
It’s considered a heteropolysaccharide, which means it contains two or more different monosaccharide units.
What is xanthan gum made out of?
Actually the way that xanthan gum is manufactured is quite fascinating:
- First, it is produced when glucose, sucrose or lactose is fermented by the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris, which infects many cruciferous plants (like cauliflower and cabbage) and causes diseases, such as bacterial wilt and black rot.
- Then, it is precipitated (made into a solid) by isopropyl alcohol.
- After being dried, it is ground into fine powder so it can be added to liquid to form gum.
While you may often see xanthan gum in food products, there are also many industrial xanthan gum uses. Because it is an effective “all natural” emulsifier, it’s considered a non-hazardous additive for a wide range of brines, drilling and fracturing fluids.
As described by Cargill Inc., xanthan gum is commonly used to make products like VerXan™ D gum, which are popular for:
- Minimizing pumping friction in lime, freshwater and saltwater muds.
- Maximizing drill bit penetration.
- Accelerating drilling rates in low viscosity/high shear conditions.
- Efficient suspension/solids transport in high viscosity/low shear conditions.
- Decreasing solids buildup in drilling fluids.
- Handling high gravel concentrations.
- High viscosity at low concentrations.
- Stabilization of hole-cleaning fluids.
- Decreasing damage to oil formation.
- Decreasing maintenance expense.
- Lowering total cost of operation.
Wondering about xanthan gum carbs and calories? One tablespoon (approximately 12 grams) contains about:
- 35 calories
- 8 grams carbohydrates
- 8 grams fiber
Is xanthan gum keto-friendly?
Yes, it’s typically considered acceptable on a keto diet.
Is xanthan gum vegan?
Xanthan Gum vs. Guar Gum
Xanthan gum is a guar gum substitute and vice versa. If you’re comparing guar gum vs. xanthan gum, guar gum is also used as a thickening and stabilizing agent in many common products.
Both are commonly added to flour mixes to add structure to baked goods. If you’re wondering how to use xanthan gum and guar gum, some sources say that guar works better in cold food, such as ice cream, while xanthan is better in baked goods.
Is xanthan gum gluten-free?
Yes, xanthan and guar gum are gluten-free and often used in place of gluten.
Where to Find It
What is xanthan gum used for?
Xanthan gum can found in such a wide variety of products, from food to cosmetics to medicines.
What does xanthan gum do?
Produced by plant-pathogenic bacterium — a microorganism that causes several diseases in plants — xanthan gum is widely used as a thickening and stabilizing agent in a wide variety of food and industrial products. When gluten-free flours are used, xanthan gum also helps starches combine in desirable way.
Today it is commonly used in:
- Baked goods and pastry fillings
- Ice cream and sherbet
- Industrial products
- Jams, jellies and sauces
- Salad dressings
And the list goes on…
If you’re wondering where to buy xanthan gum, you can find it at grocery stores or online.
Is It Safe?
It’s generally agreed upon in the scientific community that it is safe to consume up to 15 grams of xanthan gum per day. As described by an article published in the British Journal of Nutrition, it can cause “significant increases in stool output, frequency of defecation and flatulence” in humans consistently consuming 15 or more grams every day.
To give a little context, many protein powder dietary supplements use xanthan gum for its ability to add texture, but one serving of these usually contains less than half a gram of xanthan gum. The amount used in food products is also generally small.
What is xanthan gum good for?
While very few in number, some research studies have actually uncovered that xanthan gum may have substantial health benefits.
According to a 2009 article published in the journal International Immunopharmacology, for example, xanthan gum was shown to have cancer-fighting properties. This study evaluated the oral administration of xanthan gum and discovered that it “significantly retarded tumor growth and prolonged survival” of mice inoculated with melanoma cells.
Xanthan gum-based thickeners were also fairly recently found to help oropharyngeal dysphagia patients swallow because of increased viscosity. This is a condition in which people have a difficulty emptying food into the esophagus because of abnormalities in muscle or nerves.
Common in stroke victims, this use can help people considerably because it can aid aspiration. Interestingly, this increased viscosity can help reduce blood sugar spikes when xanthan gum is mixed with fruit juice.
In addition to these few studies, some internet sources claim that xanthan gum is good for the skin and hair as well.
Is It Bad for You?
Is xanthan gum bad for humans?
Other than being a minor digestive system irritant when taken in large quantities, studies on xanthan gum have consistently reported that it’s relatively harmless. First published in the 1973 edition of Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, the safety evaluation of two-year feeding studies on dogs fed up to 1.0 g/kg/day of xanthan gum showed that, “No significant effect on growth rate, survival, hematologic values, organ weights or tumor incidence” occurred.
As expected, “Soft stools were noted more frequently for the high- and middle-level males, but the differences from the control group barely reached the level of statistical significance.”
In other words, the more you consume the more your digestive system will be stimulated. This is why we are advised to limit our daily intake to 15 grams per day (the xanthan gum dogs in the above study got the equivalent of about 68 grams per day in a human weighing about 150 pounds).
Unfortunately, we don’t have a large pool of human studies to gauge any opinion off of, but the ones that exist are quite favorable supporting xanthan gum use as a food additive.
An early study published in 1987, for instance, took male volunteers and asked them to consume 10.4 or 12.9 grams of xanthan gum every day for three weeks. The study uncovered that, although this higher amount caused an increase in transit time (expedited digestion) and a change in fecal weight and texture, it did not have a significant effect on:
- Plasma biochemistry
- Blood markers
- Urinalysis parameters
- Glucose tolerance
- Insulin tests
- Immune markers
- Triglycerides, phospholipids and HDL cholesterol
- Breath hydrogen and breath methane (a test for sugar malabsorption)
Essentially proving that xanthan gum is not absorbed into the bloodstream, you should rest assured that the vast majority remains within your digestive tract from the time that it reaches your mouth to when you excrete it out.
Risks, Side Effects and Interactions
Is xanthan gum bad?
It’s generally considered safe to consume up to 15 grams of xanthan gum daily.
What are xanthan gum side effects?
Common potential xanthan gum side effects include bloating and intestinal gas. Exposure to xanthan gum powder also may cause flu-like symptoms, nose and throat irritation, and lung problems.
Is it possible to have an xanthan gum allergy?
To produce xanthan gum, manufacturers sometimes use common food allergens, including corn, soy, wheat and dairy products. So if you have an allergy to one or more of these, then you may need to avoid xanthan gum and products that contain it unless you can figure out how the gum was made.
Don’t be afraid to ask a manufacturer, “What is xanthan gum made of in your product?”
Xanthan gum is a bulk-forming laxative that can be harmful if you experience any of the following: nausea, vomiting, appendicitis, hard stools that are difficult to expel (fecal impaction), narrowing or blockage of the intestine, or undiagnosed stomach pain. Avoid use of xanthan gum if you have any of these symptoms/conditions.
For women who are pregnant or nursing, amounts of xanthan gum larger than those normally found in food are not recommended.
Since xanthan gum can decrease blood sugar, when it’s combined with antidiabetes drugs, it may cause blood sugar to go too low. Check with your health care provider before taking diabetes medication and xanthan together.
If you do take them together, your blood sugar should be monitored closely, and it’s possible your medication dosage may need to be altered.
Since xanthan gum can lower blood sugar levels, it’s also recommended to stop using it at least two before surgery to avoid unwanted affects on blood sugar during or after surgery.
SimplyThick® is a xanthan gum-based thickener used to manage dysphagia experienced by adults. In 2012, the FDA warned not to give SimplyThick® to infants because it caused dangerous necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC).
A scientific review of some of the premature infants who developed NEC points out, “xanthan gum is the ingredient in ST that results in thickening and also is an effective laxative.”
In general, check with your health care provider before taking it as a supplement, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, have a health condition or currently take medication.
Top 5 Substitute Options
Xanthan gum is marketed as a plant-based alternative to gluten as a binding agent in baking. There are a few xanthan gum substitutes you may want to try, though, if you’re interested in expanding your culinary skills with creative emulsifiers.
According to an article published in the journal Food Research International, “Psyllium, besides being an excellent source of natural soluble fiber, has been widely recognized for its cholesterol-lowering effect and insulin sensitivity improvement capacity.”
Sold widely as a dietary fiber supplement, Iraqi researchers have actually proven that psyllium fiber is an effective alternative to gluten. Because soluble fibers become gelatinous and sticky in water, they discovered that by simply “adding up to 5 percent of psyllium can improve the baking characteristics of bread.”
However, other sources claim that you should use up to 10 percent because higher additions yield a softer crumb after testing storage periods up to four days. As would be expected, you’ll either need to add some water or increase the liquid content of your recipe to compensate for the water-absorbing fiber.
There’s no hard-fast rule, but I suggest experimenting and let your dough or batter sit for a few minutes to give the psyllium a chance to gelatinize. Then, you can add the right amount of liquid to get the consistency that you’re looking for.
2. Chia Seeds
Another great xanthan gum substitute is chia. Very similar to psyllium, chia seeds gelatinize rather quickly and contain a large amount of soluble fiber.
They have quickly become one of America’s favorite superfoods because they are nutrient-dense and packed with energy. The key to chia’s health success is that it contains a very favorable 3:1 omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio, which has been shown to help suppress inflammation — one of the primary causes of chronic disease today.
When added to liquid, it forms a gel-like substance that can improve the overall structure of baked goods very nicely. Because it retains water, it can be an effective solution to prevent your gluten-free breads and goodies from drying out too soon as well, which unfortunately happens all too often.
Known for being one of nature’s richest omega-3 fatty acid sources, flaxseeds have been used for literally thousands of years in breads and various food items. The health benefits of flax have taken the natural health world by storm because they have been linked to helping people with obesity, high cholesterol and even cancer.
When ground into a fine powder, flaxseed acts as an effective binding agent and can easily replace the gooey gluten effect that bakers are looking for. It is important to note that whole flaxseeds do not have the same effect.
You must break the hard outer shell to enjoy its binding benefits. Simply add some ground flax to boiling water to form a thick paste that can be used in any gluten-free flour mixture.
Another substitute for xanthan gum is gelatin.
Gelatin is the breakdown of collagen and has been used for a variety of health conditions since ancient times. It can help ease food allergies, sooth food sensitivities, and is extremely effective at promoting healthy bacteria (probiotic) balance and growth.
The Weston A Price Foundation describes that, “… prior to the mid 20th century, doctors recommended the addition of glycine-rich gelatin to the homemade infant formulas that were used when breast feeding was not possible.”
Like ground flaxseed, gelatin is a wonderful gluten and xanthan gum thickener alternative. Simply add with some water to get a gooey mixture that you’re looking for with your baked goods.
5. Agar Agar
Because gelatin is an animal product, it is not suitable for most vegetarians and definitely not for vegans. The solution to this problem is agar agar, a plant-based gelatin substitute.
The Japanese are known to use agar to lose weight because of its bulking effect, and its healing benefits reach beyond that of treating constipation and diabetes.
Made from seaweed, agar agar is flavorless and acts a fast thickening and food-stabilizing agent. Mix with water like you would with gelatin, and you’ll get a gel-like substance to help give you that gooey, bread-like texture.
- You can find xanthan gum in many food, cosmetic and industrial products.
- It is a polysaccharide (a type of sugar) made through a process of fermentation from a bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris that infects various plants.
- It’s also marketed as a plant-based alternative to gluten as a binding agent in baking.
- Is xanthan gum safe? It’s generally considered safe as long as you don’t exceed 15 grams per day.
- If you come across xanthan gum recipes, you now know that you have other healthy options to use as a substitute if you’d like, including psyllium fiber, gelatin, chia seeds, flaxseeds and agar agar.
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