Whenever I get asked about common food additives people always ask, “What is xanthan gum?” Well if you just search for it on Google you’ll get nearly 1.2 million hits! What makes it extremely challenging to get the real scoop, is that there is so much conflicting information. You’ll read everything describing xanthan gum as a “natural” health food to being a known carcinogen.
So, the question is, what IS xanthan gum, and what is the truth behind this mysterious ingredient that seem to be in everything today?
What Is Xanthan Gum Used For?
First of all, Xanthan gum is a complex exopolysaccharide, meaning that it is a polymer composed of sugar residues, secreted by a microorganism into the surrounding environment. 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. (1)
Today it is commonly used in:
- Baked goods and pastry fillings
- Ice cream and sherbet
- Industrial uses
- Jams, jellies and sauces
- Salad dressings
And the list goes on….
What Is Xanthan Gum?
So exactly, what is xanthan gum? Actually the way that xanthan gum is manufactured is quite fascinating: (2)
- First, it is produced when glucose, sucrose or lactose is fermented by the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris.
- Then, it is precipitated (made into a solid) by isopropyl alcohol.
- After being dried, it is ground into fine powder where it can be added to liquid to form gum.
Because it is an effective “all natural” emulsifier, xanthan gum is considered a non-hazardous additive for a wide range of brines, drilling and fracturing fluids. (3) As described by Cargill, Inc., xanthan gum is commonly used to make products like VerXan™ D gum, which are popular for: (3)
- 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.
But don’t let these industrial uses concern you. As long as you are not allergic, it is relatively harmless. The bottom line is that xanthan gum may not be tolerated well by people with digestive issues, but it’s not as bad as many make it out to be.
Is Xanthan Gum 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. (4) However, people with digestive issues may want to think twice about eating foods containing it because xanthan gum has been found to be a highly efficient laxative. Subsequently, 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.” (5)
Other than being a minor digestive system irritant, 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 rats fed up to 1.0 gram/day of xanthan gum showed that, “No significant effect on growth rate, survival, hematologic values, organ weights or tumor incidence” occurred. (6)
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.” (6) In other words, the more you consume the more your digestive system will be stimulated; which is why we are advised to limit our daily intake to much less than 1 gram per day.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a large pool of human studies to gage any opinion off of, but the ones that do have 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 (equal to 15 times the current acceptable daily intake) every day for 3 weeks.
The study uncovered that, although this extreme 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: (7)
- 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 blood stream, you should rest assured that the vast majority remains within your digestive track from the time that it reaches your mouth to when you excrete it out.
Xanthan Gum Health Benefits
The next question I usually hear is, “What is xanthan gum good for?” Or “Are there any health benefits?”
Well yes, there are! 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. (8)
Xanthan gum based thickeners were also recently found to help oropharyngeal dysphagia patients swallow because of increased viscosity. (9) This is a condition where 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 help aspiration.
Interestingly, this increased viscosity can help keep blood spikes to a minimum when xanthan gum is mixed with fruit juice. (10)
In addition to these few studies, some Internet sources claim that xanthan gum is good for the skin and hair.
Is There a Substitute for Xanthan Gum?
In spite of only being linked to a few health benefits, xanthan gum has been marketed as a “healthy” alternative to gluten as a binding agent in baking.
Bob’s Red Mill, arguably the largest manufacturer of gluten-free flour and baked good mixes in the world, even refers to xanthan gum as a “plant-based thickening and stabilizing agent” and sells a 3.50 lbs bag for $70.69! (1) Not bad profit from fermented bacteria and alcohol, huh?
While xanthan gum may not be dangerous and have some health benefits, it still would not be my first choice as a binding agent for the home baker or cook. It is way over-priced, and there are several other less expensive substitutes out there, which is why I strongly recommend using any of the truly natural alternatives to unnatural binding agents. It isn’t so much that xanthan gum is horribly bad for you, but because these wholesome alternatives are just that good! (11)
1. Psyllium Fiber
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.” (12) 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% of psyllium can improve the baking characteristics of bread.” (13) However, other sources claim that you should use up to 10% because higher additions yield a softer crumb after testing storage periods up to 4 days. (12)
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 about of liquid to get the consistency that you’re looking for.
2. Chia seeds
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. (14, 15)
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, flax seeds 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! (16, 17, 18)
When ground into a fine powder, flax seed 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 flax seeds 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 that you want to work with.
Gelatin is the breakdown of collagen and has been used as medicine 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.
Being is a health food beyond measure, 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! (19)
I can go on and on about gelatin, so let’s just say that it is superfood of superfoods. Like ground flax seed, it’s a wonderful gluten and xanthan gum 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. (20)
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.