Do you want to go gluten-free, or are you on a ketogenic diet and looking for a suitable binder for soups, sauces, or baked goods? Then xanthan gum might be a legitimate choice!
Nonetheless, food with the epithet “gum” doesn’t sound inviting. Find out if xanthan gum lives up to its promise and what side effects it might have.
What Is Xanthan Gum?
Xanthan gum is a complex exopolysaccharide resulting from bacterial fermentation (Becker et al. 19981).
Exopolysaccharides are multiple sugars secreted by fungi or bacteria.
Accordingly, xanthan gum forms when adding the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris to a growth medium containing sugar and other nutrients.
When I see the word “gum” on a food product, it makes me skeptical. Nonetheless, such ingredients are more common than you might think.
Other gums, such as guar gum, are also enjoying a lot of popularity these days. The reason for this, and the strange naming, is the ability to hold ingredients together like gum.
Against increasing diets, gums can replace traditional ingredients in baking goods.
Furthermore, xanthan gum is an emulsifier, thickener, and stabilizer in foods. This benefit makes it an increasingly important ingredient for food producers who want to avoid common allergens such as eggs and wheat.
Where Does It Come From?
Knowing where food additives come from and how they are made is essential to deduce whether they could be harmful.
The production of xanthan gum is quite special process:
- First, it forms when glucose, sucrose, or lactose is fermented by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris, which usually infects cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower and causes diseases such as bacterial wilt and black rot
- It is then made into a solid with isopropyl alcohol
- After drying, it is ground into a fine powder
In this powder form, it can be better stored and reactivated at any time by adding liquid to form the thickening gum.
What Is Xanthan Gum Used For?
Xanthan is widely used in the following products:
- Baked goods
- Effervescent powders
- Ice cream
- Jams and jellies
- Salad dressings
In the food industry, xanthan gum has three primary uses.
1. Thickening Agent:
Xanthan gum is used to give liquid foods a thicker consistency. Therefore, one uses it in sauces, soups, and smoothies.
Especially in low-carb diets, xanthan gum replaces thickening ingredients such as bananas or arrowroot flour, as these contain too many carbohydrates.
2. Binding Agent:
Xanthan gum is a popular binder in baked goods. This binding agent usually replaces gluten, responsible for a soft but chewy texture.
In the process, xanthan gum holds baked goods together, a popular alternative to sticky wheat protein.
Like gluten, it binds ingredients in a way that allows air pockets. For this reason, xanthan gum can also impart a tart flavor to baked goods.
Emulsifiers help fats, such as cooking oils, combine with water.
When you think of a rich bone broth, fat eyes that didn’t bond with the water probably immediately come to mind.
Emulsifiers counteract this result, allowing the fat and water to combine eventually.
For example, you’ll find xanthan gum as an emulsifier in foods like salad dressings and ice cream. In addition, there are also many industrial uses of the gum as an emulsifier.
Since xanthan gum is an all-natural emulsifier, it is a harmless additive for various fracturing and drilling fluids.
Like the food industry, the machinery and heavy industry know a wide range of applications for the emulsifier:
- Solids transport at high viscosity.
- Minimization of friction when pumping out mud
- Improving drilling speed at a low viscosity
- Reducing solids buildup in drilling fluids
- Reduction of damage to the oil formation
- Reduce maintenance and operating costs
Is Xanthan Gum Vegan?
Although this question sounds simple, it is not, as xanthan gum manufacturers often do not identify the substrate they use.
In addition to corn, wheat, and soy, some producers use dairy as the growth medium necessary for fermentation.
Because of this, it may or may not be vegan. Therefore, you should look for the vegan seal on any food packaging containing xanthan gum.
Is Xanthan Gum Gluten-Free?
Since some manufacturers also use wheat and barley as a substrate for fermentation, xanthan gum may also contain traces of gluten.
Nonetheless, xanthan gum powder sold as a baking ingredient is usually labeled gluten-free on the package, if so.
Thus, most xanthan gum products can exclude gluten, a particularly aggressive lectin that can even cause holes in the intestinal wall (Sturgeon et al. 20162).
However, gluten-free xanthan gum is not automatically lectin-free because growth media containing lectins are usually used instead of wheat:
This fact represents a reason to turn to alternatives to xanthan gum.
Is Xanthan Gum Keto?
As we have already learned, sugar is essential in making xanthan gum. Ultimately, bacteria ferment sugar in the process.
So is xanthan gum not suitable for a ketogenic diet? Not necessarily.
Therefore, it is technically keto-friendly.
We’ll get to why I think there are nevertheless better alternatives to xanthan gum shortly.
How Many Carbs Are in Xanthan Gum?
One hundred grams of xanthan gum contains about 78 grams of carbohydrates. However, the entire 78 grams count as dietary fiber. Thus, they do not represent net carbohydrates because the body excretes them.
Moreover, One tablespoon of xanthan gum powder contains about 3.5 grams of carbohydrates.
How Much to Use As a Thickener?
The following simple conversion methods exist for using xanthan gum as an alternative thickener, depending on the intended use:
To thicken soups, use an average of about 1/8 teaspoon of xanthan gum per cup of water.
As an alternative to traditional thickeners such as wheat flour, about one teaspoon of xanthan gum can be used for each tablespoon of the original binder when thickening sauces.
Per Cup of Flour
Depending on the type of baked good, most recipes use the following amounts of xanthan gum:
- Cakes: 1/2 teaspoon per cup of flour
- Bread: 1 teaspoon per cup of flour
- Pizza: 2 teaspoons per cup of flour
Xanthan Gum Side Effects: Is it Safe?
Although xanthan gum is generally considered safe, studies indicate potential side effects. However, this evidence is limited to allergies, digestive problems, and infant consumption.
Individual studies indicate potential allergic reactions caused by xanthan gum (Aerts et al. 20153).
The growth medium used to produce xanthan gum may affect people who consume the food product since some manufacturers use allergenic substances to feed the bacterium.
These include in particular:
- Dairy products
Not all xanthan gum producers are willing to disclose their substrate used.
In addition, other products containing xanthan gum make it even more challenging to find information about the growth medium.
Nevertheless, the growth medium can cause allergic reactions in consumers.
If you suffer from severe soy, gluten, lactose, or corn intolerance, avoiding products containing xanthan gum is probably better or asking the manufacturer for more detailed information.
In addition to xanthan gum, other gums such as mastic, guar gum, or locust bean gum can also cause hidden food intolerances and sensitivities (Vojdani et al. 20154).
With this in mind, wheat-free or gluten-free baking does not necessarily mean allergen-free baking.
Diarrhea and Gut Health
Probably the most common known side effects of xanthan gum are digestive problems.
Against this background, studies exist that have been conducted on humans. Accordingly, ten-day consumption of xanthan gum in men showed the following effects:
- Increased stool volume
- More frequent bowel movements
- Increased flatulence
Therefore, scientists believe xanthan gum is a very efficient laxative when consumed in more significant amounts (Daly et al. 19935).
However, whether the effects of xanthan gum on the gut microbiome should be considered positive or negative remains unclear to date.
Furthermore, according to a study conducted on rats, xanthan gum can increase the fluid content of the stool (Edwards et al. 19956).
Consequently, this is another indication that xanthan gum may cause diarrhea.
While the effects of xanthan gum on the digestive systems of healthy adult humans may not be hazardous, this could be different for infants.
Xanthan gum is sometimes used as a thickener to give breast milk or infant formula a consistency that counteracts swallowing problems and reflux.
This intestine disease is feared in preterm infants because it is the most common acute gastrointestinal disease in this patient group, and its treatment causes complications.
After it was suspected that the food additive was responsible for individual fatal outcomes of the disease in infants, studies also suggest that it may be life-threatening.
Infants’ still underdeveloped intestinal tract could be overwhelmed with the high amount of short-chain fatty acids caused due to xanthan gum (Lin 20049).
Accordingly, short-chain fatty acids could also cause significant damage to the intestinal wall in newborn rats (Lin et al. 200210).
For these reasons, nobody should use xanthan gum in children who have not yet completed their first year of life.
Too Much Xanthan Gum Is Not Safe
Xanthan gum hides in numerous food, cosmetic, and industrial products. The polysaccharide is nevertheless a dietary fiber and, therefore, not properly digested.
Although it is marketed as a vegetable alternative to gluten as a binding agent in baking, xanthan gum may have been produced based on wheat, barley, corn, soy, or dairy products and may cause allergic reactions.
While the thickener can cause flatulence and diarrhea in adults, it can trigger intestinal disorders in infants that can even have a fatal outcome.
Therefore, xanthan gum should be the exception rather than the rule, even in gluten-free and ketogenic diets. Moreover, one should not even consider administering it to children under one year of age.
If you want to play it safe, use eggs, ground flaxseed, or gelatin instead of xanthan gum when needing a binding agent.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is xanthan gum bad for you?
Consumption of xanthan gum may be okay occasionally but cause side effects in the long run.
What can I use in place of xanthan gum?
Flaxseed, egg whites, and gelatin are the best alternatives to replace xanthan gum.
Is xanthan gum natural or artificial?
Xanthan gum is considered natural since it forms in a fermentation process. However, it is going to be processed into powder afterward.
What is the difference between xanthan gum and cornstarch?
In contrast to cornstarch, xanthan gum is all dietary fiber and has not net-carbs. Nevertheless, some manufacturers base xanthan gum on corn as a growth medium.
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Mag. Stephan Lederer, MSc. is an author and blogger from Austria who writes in-depth content about health and nutrition. His book series on Interval Fasting landed #1 on the bestseller list in the German Amazon marketplace in 15 categories.
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