Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to pay attention to what you ate? Unfortunately, that is not the case for millions of people with digestive disorders, including ulcerative colitis, IBS, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and other conditions. Something as simple as a slice of bread or salad dressing could cause serious issues for people with these and other digestive issues.
One ingredient that has recently come under scrutiny is xanthan gum. Xanthan gum is a food additive that is often included as a food thickening ingredient in numerous products, including salad dressings, sauces, ice cream, egg substitutes, and beverages, to name a few. It is also used as a stabilizer in a variety of health products (like toothpaste) and cosmetic products to keep the ingredients from separating. Makeup examples include foundation, liquid blush, and other products that require smooth and even application. Xanthan gum is also a common additive in prescription medicines and over-the-counter drugs. It is relatively inexpensive to produce and was approved for widespread use in the U.S. and Europe in 1968.
Learn More About Xanthan Gum
Xanthan Gum is derived from and named for the bacteria, Xanthomonas campestris. It is a plant-based agent that can be used for thickening and stabilizing of a wide variety of ingredients. (This is the same bacteria that leaves black spots on vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower.) Xanthan gum is created by allowing the Xanthomonas campestris bacterium to ferment, which then creates a polysaccharide gel that is subsequently dried to create a powder. This powder, xanthan gum, has some rather amazing properties. It acts as an emulsifier that forces liquids that normally do not mix, to blend together. It also works to thicken mixtures, by increasing the viscosity of things like batters and liquids. It can also introduce a creamy texture, that is not easily created by other ingredients. Therefore, it is not surprising that xanthan gum is being used in literally thousands of food products these days.
Many gluten-free products use xanthan gum to mimic the thickening properties normally provided by gluten. Xanthan gum helps replicate gluten’s structural characteristics, and gives baked products like bread and muffins that lightness and loft. Typically, very little xanthan gum is used in most gluten-free products, amounting to only a teaspoon or so. However, it is not uncommon for people to develop an allergy or negative reaction to xanthan gum.
Initial studies on the potential side effects of xanthan gum were conducted using rats and then dogs. In both cases, the general consensus was that xanthan gum was safe, except for an occasional issue with soft stools. The experiments showed no statistically significant changes in growth, longevity, tumors, blood levels, or offspring. Early human studies on xanthan gum determined that the product was a very efficient laxative, with the participants experiencing a much greater stool output and flatulence. This finding alone should raise some red flags in the minds of people with digestive issues.
In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning that xanthan gum-based thickeners used in infant formula should not be fed to preemies. Tragically, several infants died because of this additive that led to necrotizing enterocolits or NEC. This life-threatening disease damaged the sensitive intestines of the premature infants, leading to organ failure. Though it is not known exactly how the xanthan gum product led to these issues, it became clear that premature babies are more susceptible to bacteria overgrowth that overwhelmed their natural defenses.
Is Xanthan Gum Bad for You?
Evidence is growing that many people experience gastrointestinal issues after eating products with xanthan gum. Research shows that emulsifiers like xanthan gum may be responsible for destroying the mucus barrier in the intestines, which can lead to bacterial overgrowth and even chronic bowel inflammation. In susceptible people, even small amounts can lead to an extended period of discomfort, with diarrhea, bloating, cramping, and numerous bathroom visits. Other complaints indicate that xanthan gum can lead to skin rashes, migraine headaches, stomach irritation, and even respiratory problems. One blogger wrote about her experience after eating several gluten-free products that contained xanthan gum. She developed blotchy red spots and had trouble breathing within hours of eating the gluten-free meal. There has been a steady increase in the number of people that are developing Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, that mirrors the increased use of xanthan gum and other emulsifiers. It is clear that many people are quickly developing an allergy to this ingredient. If you are having ongoing digestive issues, it might be a good idea to examine the ingredient list of each product you are eating to make sure it does not include xanthan gum.
Alternatives to Xanthan Gum
So, what are the alternatives? Many experts recommend switching to products that contain guar gum instead of xanthan gum. Guar gum is derived from ground guar beans, which results in an off-white powder that has more than eight times the thickening abilities of cornstarch. You can find guar gum in regular and gluten-free baked goods, dairy products (including milk, ice cream, yogurt, and liquid cheese), salad dressings, instant oatmeal, frozen foods, and canned soups. Allergic reactions to guar gum are much less common than reactions to xanthan gum. Other substitutes include psyllium fiber, chia seeds, flax seeds, gelatin, and agar agar.
Here is an excellent gluten-free bread recipe that does not include xanthan gum. Try this out at home and be assured that you are providing a healthy and satisfying addition to your family’s meal, without any additives.
Gluten-Free Bread without Additives
- 1 and 1/2 cups of almond flour
- 3/4 cup arrowroot powder
- 1/2 cup flaxmeal
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 4 eggs
- 1 teaspoon sugar or agave
- 1 teaspoon vinegar
Combine all of the dry ingredients and blend thoroughly. Then whip up the four eggs and add sugar and vinegar. Mix the wet ingredients along with the dry ingredients. Pour this batter in a 8×4 inch pan that is well greased. Bake the bread at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until the top is firm and a knife inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean. Let the loaf cool, then turn out and slice to serve. This bread is excellent with butter, goat cheese, or honey.