Xanthan Gum


Xanthan gum is one of those tricky ingredients whose name doesn’t help you out at all. Especially when you find it listed as an ingredient in foods that are distinctly different from what you think of as gum. In this article we will take a look at what exactly xanthan gum is, how its made, and why it's in so many different types of food.

What Is It?

Xanthan gum is an exopolysaccharide.[1] This means it is a complex sugar (composed of bound monosaccharides), that is excreted by a microorganism as a byproduct or waste.

This is done by taking a sugar and introducing Xanthomonas Camestris, a bacteria, to ferment the sugar. After this process has been completed, the fermented sugar is dried into a fine white powder.

This powder can be later added to create the “gum” bit of xanthan gum, which holds a great deal of this food additive’s usefulness.

What Is Its Biological Role?

Xanthan gum is used in both foods and cosmetics. Its two main uses are as a thickening agent and a stabilizer. Have you ever added a bit of extra flour to a sauce to help thicken it up?

Then you used flour as a thickening agent. Xanthan gum does the same thing, though is primarily used by big box manufacturers in the production of processed foodstuffs. However, it is also naturally gluten free [2] and so is becoming an evermore popular substitute for the home chef or baker.

It is also used as a stabilizer. Stabilizers are typically added to foods that require an emulsifying agent in order to stay properly bound together. These would be foods that include oils in the presence of water or other liquids it wouldn’t normally mix with.

The emulsifying agent is added in order to initially cause the ingredients to mix together smoothly,and then a stabilizer such as xanthan gum is added so to keep the ingredients from separating during storage.

How Does It Help Bodybuilders and People Who Work Out?

While this ingredient doesn’t seem to be harmful, neither does it hold any special benefit for fitness minded folks physically. It is,however, a popular ingredient that enables a long shelf life for many protein drinks and nutritional bars!

One popular use among those in the fitness community that enjoy consuming protein shakes as part of a pre- or post- workout regime is adding xanthan gum to the shakes. You see, xanthan gum can be purchased in its powdered form at many health food stores, typically for use in gluten free cooking or baking.

Interestingly, if you follow that idea and add a bit of xanthan gum to your protein shake it can add more body and improve the texture considerably. This effect is even more noticeable if you normally make your shakes with water rather than milk.

What Foods Contain It?

Xanthan gum must be synthesized, and is not naturally occurring in any food. It is a common additive to shelf-stable products and other processed foods. To be sure whether or not a particular food contains xanthan gum, it is best to read the label, as its presence in a given type of food may vary from brand to brand.

How Much Of It Do You Need?

There is no officially recommended amount of xanthan gum to consume per day, as it is used almost exclusively in non nutritive roles.

Are There Risks Associated With Consuming Too Much Of It?

There is no warning for adults associated with consuming too much xanthan gum. If you have a formula fed infant, you may want to avoid the stuff, though. There are some preliminary studies that have linked baby formula thickened with xanthan gum to the development of necrotizing enterocolitis or NEC.[3]

It seems that xanthan gum was an ingredient commonly used in hospital to thicken baby formula for infants that had trouble swallowing, and a large enough portion of the infants developed NEC and died that they launched an investigational study. No direct causation has been proven yet, but it is still a point of concern and parents may want to closely check whatever formula they buy.

Are There Risks Associated With Consuming Too Little Of It?

Xanthan gum is not considered a necessary part of a balanced diet; if you were to avoid consumption of this ingredient you would experience no negative side effects. An interesting exception to this rule may be cancer patients.

Final Take

Xanthan gum is currently undergoing research aimed at investigating its usefulness as a cancer drug. Preliminary findings showed that higher,therapeutic doses of xanthan gum may inhibit the spread of cancer cells.

All of the research into the negative effects and possible therapeutic uses of this ingredient is still in its infancy. For now, it is simply a very useful thickening agent that is a great option for gluten free bakers and many other uses.

References:

[1] Dr. Axe, Josh. What Is Xanthan Gum? Draxe.com, 2015.

[2] Hodson Mill. Gluten Free Xanthan Gum. Celiac.org, 2017.

[3] Saint Louis, Catherine. Warning Too Late For Some Babies. Nytimes.com, 2013.