Have you ever seen the funny phrase Xanthan Gum on the ingredients label of a gluten free food product? Have you wondered exactly what is xanthan gum? What’s it made from, and if you should even be eating it?
I didn’t until a friend of mine read about it in a book called Pandora’s Lunchbox by Melanie Warner exposing part of the dirty underbelly of the food industry. Thanks to her, I came to know just how awful an ingredient xanthan gum is and why you’d want to avoid it.
What is Xanthan Gum?
Xanthan gum is a common food binder available for purchase at grocery stores in the form of an inconspicuous white powder. As the term “gum” implies, xanthan gum gives items such as gluten free bread some of the texture and consistency that we’re all familiar with from our non-gluten free days. It provides some of that natural gumminess inherent to gluten in products without it.
This ingredient becomes even more important when you remove other binders, such as eggs, when making gluten free products vegan. Sounds like xanthan gum is a good thing, right? Not so fast…
The Dark Side of Xanthan Gum
Most people have no idea what xanthan gum is made from. Granted, the pure white powder doesn’t sound any alarms. It’s easy to confuse it with some of the other “white powders” we’re used to adding to baking mixes. And frankly, when I ate a lot of gluten free baked goods and bread, I didn’t necessarily care in the beginning what each ingredient was and where it came from. I just wanted to eat something similar to what I was used to before going gluten free.
To be clear, xanthan gum is a food additive approved for use in the USA in 1968 and is pervasive in the gluten free food category. It’s actually pretty difficult to find products without it (and that includes items outside of food such as shampoos and other beauty products). When mixed with some of the other gums, such as locust or guar gum, the result is an even better binder which explains why they are often used together in products.
The question few ask though is how xanthan gum is produced so that this common white powder has the power to make ingredients bind together as effectively as it does. The journey to your plate all starts with a lovely strain of bacteria known as Xanthomonas Campestris which in the world of Botany is responsible for producing what’s known as Black Rot on vegetables of the cruciferous family (ie. cauliflower, broccoli, kale).
Yes, Black Rot… it sounds awful and it is for plants that become infected. As you can see here in a picture that I personally took of my cauliflower plants attacked by Black Rot during the summer of 2013. I couldn’t save them and lost the entire crop after a summer’s worth of hard work.
But What is Xanthan Gum Made From?
To be clear, xanthan gum isn’t black rot. However I’ll leave it up to you whether you feel comfortable eating it from here on out.
The action of the bacteria produces black rot or a slimy gel depending on where it is applied. In the case of producing xanthan gum, Xanthomonas campestris is applied to some sort of starchy material (ie. corn, wheat, dairy or soy) and ferments it to produce a slimy, indigestible polysaccaride (a string of multiple glucose molecules) substance. This slimy material is then further refined, dried and milled into the white powder we know as xanthan gum.
Before we go further, you may have questions about whether the original starch would cause any reactivity in humans who are sensitive to those particular foods — corn, soy, dairy or wheat (which is most important to all of us here). It appears that there have been very few studies conducted on humans about the safety of xanthan gum according to the research provided by Chris Kresser.
Another question is whether xanthan gum is made from source materials (ie. corn and soy) that are GMO (genetically modified organisms). For those who do their best to avoid consuming those GMO crops, that would mean nixing xanthan gum off your list unless it’s certified as organic.
However it’s been noted on several sites, including that of Bob’s Red Mill, that folks with a corn or soy allergy may want to avoid xanthan gum produced from those starches since there’s no guarantee that it’s free from those allergens. Their particular product is produced on wheat starch which lacks the portion of wheat containing gluten (but makes me wonder about safety for those with an actual wheat allergy). With the FDA regulations now, I would assume they actually test their gluten free products to fall under 20 ppm.
Side Effects of Xanthan Gum
As you may already know, everything in nature can cause side effects that vary from person to person. Xanthan gum is no different and can cause issues for people. According to WebMD, it’s contraindicated to consume it in large quantities (over 15 grams per day) which is difficult considering how little one uses in a large recipe. It may also interfere with diabetic medication, causing blood sugar levels to drop too low. And xanthan gum is listed as a “bulk-forming laxative” which can cause problems such as nausea, vomiting and hard stools to name a few.
And it is possible to develop a sensitivity to xanthan gum just as you would to other foods. If you find that you’re still reacting to food that’s labeled gluten free, remember that other food intolerances are possible and can sometimes mimic the symptoms of getting glutened. Leaky Gut Syndrome is a big reason why folks may find themselves adding more foods to the “NO” list. There is plenty of anecdotal accounts all over the web from people who react to xanthan gum.
What To Do…
If you follow my work here at Gluten Free School, you know I’m a fan of eating real food.
By doing so, you reduce your exposure to wacky ingredients such as xanthan gum. It’s not to say that you can’t ever indulge in a gluten free baked good or a slice of gluten free bread. But ask yourself if you feel comfortable doing so all the time now that you know what it is.
I recognize that some people may not care while others, like me, absolutely will. We are each responsible for tending to our own health. The decision you make rests entirely on your shoulders.
If you bake, you can replace xanthan gum with guar gum which is derived from the guar bean.
And you could also search on Google for the paleo version of the baked good you’re hoping to make. Even if you don’t eat paleo, you’ll at least end up with a recipe that’s focused solely on real food over a gluten free recipe comprised of 20+ ingredients (like xanthan gum).
I’d also suggest contacting companies with products you love and let them know that you’re not comfortable with their choice of binder. If they receive enough complaints, they may very well reformulate the product without it.
I’ll certainly follow up with another article looking at some of the other gums in the future, so please stay tuned!
NEED MORE HELP?
If you feel like you’re at your wits’ end and fed up knowing what to eat…
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