Xanthan gum is a common additives in food. It’s primarily used to thicken snack-type foods and provide a gel-like consistency. But you can opt to use a xanthan gum substitute instead.
Are you the rare person who makes all your food at home? And never eats out? If not, you’re likely consuming xanthan gum which is a common additive to commercially prepared foods.
In case you’re wondering if it’s safe; which foods contain it; how it’s made; why it’s added to certain foods; and if there are substitutes for it, here’s the quick overview:
- It’s safe for most people to consume it.
- It acts as a gel-like substance to thicken food.
- It’s common in gluten-free foods, especially baked goods.
- One health benefit is that it acts as a prebiotic. Prebiotics are like food for probiotics.
- It’s made by fermenting sugar and adding alcohol to the bacteria. The gum then gets dried and turned into a powder.
- If you have a bad corn, wheat, soy or dairy sensitivity or allergy, avoid it.
- Xanthan gum substitutes include: psyllium fiber, chia seeds, glucomannan, ground flax seeds, gelatin, and agar agar.
Is Xanthan Gum Natural?
Unlike species of gum trees, xanthan gum is not an all natural product that comes from a tree or the ground like a fruit, vegetable or grain.
But in a way, it’s a natural carbohydrate consisting of a few ingredients: sugar, bacteria and alcohol.
It was created in the 1960s by scientists. Back then, the gluten-free movement was virtually non-existent. So why then was it created? And why are we eating it, considering the bacteria used to make it is the same as the one that rots cruciferous vegetables?
Well, back in the mid-20th century, processed foods really started to take off. But food manufactures needed a way to thicken packaged foods. The food industry also needed a cheap way to separate oil from water.
Enter Xanthomonas campestris. This is the specific bacteria from which the name xanthan gum comes from.
Suppose you’re making your own salad dressing at home. What ingredients would you use? Maybe olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a spritz or two of lemon zest and a pinch of garlic….
Would you add to your homemade salad dressing xanthan gum? Probably not. But in bottled salad dressing sold at supermarkets, xanthan gum helps mix the oil and other liquid ingredients. This is the reason why it’s also common in bottled and canned sauces.
Xanthan gum also prevents bottled foods from pouring out too quickly.
How is Xanthan Gum Made?
In addition to the Xanthomonas campestris bacteria, you need sugar to make it. Any type of sugar will do. You can make it from wheat (wheat turns into sugar when digested), corn, or lactose (milk sugar). In addition, it’s also sometimes made from soybeans.
Technically, it’s not an emulsifier like egg yolks. Nonetheless, it does give dough the necessary elasticity and sticky consistency.
What Foods Have Xanthan Gum?
Besides salad dressing and sauces and gluten-free baked goods, lots of other foods contain it.
It’s often added to ice cream. The reason why is it helps prevent ice crystals from forming. It also provides it with the texture most people expect of ice cream. If you’ve ever had egg whites in a carton, chances are good that it contains it. Same goes for, well, pretty much most processed foods.
Xanthan gum is not just found in food. It’s also in household products such as toothpaste. And it’s used in heavy industry such as oil drilling–it thickens drilling mud.
Is Xanthan Gum Safe?
Does reading the fact that it thickens drilling mud makes you squeamish? If so, you might be wondering how it’s possibly safe to consume.
For most people, it’s most likely harmless. In the limited studies that have been done on it, the only time it has been shown to be a problem is when rodents were fed really large amounts of it.
But if you have an allergy to corn, soy, wheat or dairy, it might be best to avoid it.
In a moment, we’ll cover some xanthan gum substitutes you can use at home.
In the meantime, though, there might be some benefits of using it….
Benefits of Xanthan Gum
Are you familiar with prebiotics? If not, you’ve likely heard of probiotics. Probiotics are good bacteria. When you hear the term ‘probiotics’ it most often refers to the good-for-you bacteria in your intestinal tract (particularly the large intestines).
Probiotics thrive when they have yummy food to eat. Essentially, prebiotics are food that probiotics love to chomp on. Prebiotics help keep the colonies of good bacteria healthy so they can fight off bad bacteria.
Xanthan gum acts as a prebiotic. That’s one advantage of eating certain foods with it. However, some products that have it like ice cream are high in sugar. Therefore, any health benefit from the prebiotic fiber is cancelled out by the excess sugar.
Another possible benefit of this lab-created gelling agent and thickener is that it’s a soluble fiber. Soluble fiber binds to water in your gut. This action creates a gel-like substance during digestion.
While this may sound a bit disgusting, there’s a big benefit to this. The gel in your gut helps slow down digestion. And when your digestion slows down, you have less cravings and less of a tendency to overeat.
There are other benefits of soluble fiber as well. A big one is it helps lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber helps pull out excess cholesterol from the blood.
Xanthan Gum Gluten-Free Baking
Gluten is the protein that gives wheat its glue-like structure. Many people are sensitive to gluten. One theory as to why is the way wheat is heavily processed. Xanthan gum is a mostly-healthy alternative for those who are sensitive or highly allergic to gluten.
The reason why it’s “mostly-healthy” is because some brands of xanthan gum are derived from wheat. However, there are brands that are safe for those with Celiac Disease to consume.
According to the Celiac Foundation, Authentic Foods is one brand that’s safe to have.
Xanthan Gum Substitute
But if you want to avoid it altogether, you can bake gluten free goods at home with other ingredients. As mentioned above, the most popular ingredients for getting that Use it along with non-gluten containing flours to make gluten-free baked goods that thick, baked-good structure and texture are:
If you’ve never heard of glucomannan, it’s the fiber from the root of a wild yam-like plant that’s native to Southeast Asia. Like xanthan gum, glucomannan is also a soluble fiber. As such, it’s beneficial for those who are watching their blood sugar levels and managing portion sizes.
Glucomannan can also be used in place of cornstarch, which is bad for your metabolism as it quickly converts into sugar. Just one teaspoon of glucomannan flour equals about 10 teaspoons of cornstarch or two cups of wheat flour. You can use the same amount of glucomannan as xanthan gum.
And if you’ve never heard of agar agar, it’s a seaweed so nice they named it twice! Agar agar comes from a red species of seaweed. Basically, it’s like the vegetarian version of gelatin.
According to this vegan baking blog agar agar has a neutral taste. Good to know if the thought of making gluten-free cookies that has a seaweedy taste sounds disgusting.
Anyway, the vegan baking blog adds that you can use agar agar to make a vegan-friendly whipped cream fruit salad. You can even use it as a sub for corn syrup if you’re watching your net carbs.
Do you use xanthan gum in your recipes? Or a xanthan gum substitute? Share your recipe below.