Last Updated on January 23, 2023 by The Filtery
Written by Amber Kanuckel
Xanthan gum is something you probably eat without realizing it at least several times per week. It’s commonly found in products ranging from salad dressing to wallpaper glue. But does that mean it’s safe to eat? The FDA considers xanthan gum to be a safe additive for food—but let’s explore deeper. Is xanthan gum natural or artificial? Is it truly safe for everyone? Find answers to these questions below.
What the Heck is Xanthan Gum?
To put it simply, xanthan gum is a type of soluble fiber. Soluble fibers are carbohydrates that your body cannot break down. As such, soluble fibers are often recommended for certain concerns because they help slow digestion. It’s also a polysaccharide. More on that below.
Is Xanthan Gum Natural? How is it Made?
The question everyone wants to know is this: Is xanthan gum a natural ingredient? Most probably wouldn’t consider it so—at least, not in the sense that one could go out and harvest it from natural sources. Instead, it’s produced in a lab through a fermentation process. The base ingredient is sugar, which is fermented by bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris. During the fermentation process, the sugar and bacteria create a gooey substance that is turned into a solid with the addition of alcohol. From there, the xanthan gum is dried and ground into a powder that is packaged and sold for use in a variety of things including food and industrial products.
What is a Polysaccharide? Is it Safe?
Polysaccharides are indeed safe! In fact, polysaccharides are the most common organic material found on Earth—and as such, they’re in nearly all plant-based foods that we consume. But what are they? They’re a type of complex carbohydrate that is formed from long chains of simple sugars. They come in two different types: starch polysaccharides and fiber polysaccharides. Humans can digest the starchy kind, but fiber polysaccharides are indigestible, which means they pass through the digestive system.
What Does Xanthan Gum Do in Foods?
Xanthan gum is an additive that is commonly added to processed foods to thicken or stabilize them. It’s a powder that, when you put it in food, disperses and creates a viscous texture.
Should I Avoid Foods with Xanthan Gum?
This one is up to you! Experts say that when consumed in moderation, xanthan gum is safe for the average individual. Excess amounts may cause digestive issues or other problems, which we will discuss below.
In general, the common wisdom is that the fewer ingredients in food, the better—and xanthan gum is commonly found in processed foods featuring long ingredient lists with lots of unfamiliar names.
Certain populations—those with chronic health issues, celiac’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and other conditions—are likely to be more sensitive to xanthan gum. Some individuals may have to be careful to only consume very small amounts of xanthan gum, while others may need to avoid it completely. You may need to do some experimentation to identify whether or not xanthan gum exacerbates your symptoms!
What Kinds of Foods is Xanthan Gum Found In?
Because it thickens liquid products, improves texture, and stabilizes food, xanthan gum is commonly found in lots of different processed foods. These can include:
- Salad dressing
- Bakery products
- Fruit juices
- Canned and pre-packaged soups
- Ice cream
- Canned and pre-packaged sauces and gravy
- Gluten-free foods
- Low-fat foods
- Protein powder supplements
- Cosmetic products
As a Food Additive, is Xanthan Gum Safe?
Most experts agree that xanthan gum is generally safe in foods. This is based on a daily consumption of no more than 15 grams per day. Consumption past that level isn’t recommended, as it can cause “significant increases in stool output, frequency of defecation and flatulence”. But again, this will likely differ for certain individuals, so figure out what is best for you!
Does Xanthan Gum Cause Inflammation?
Exposure to pure xanthan gum powder can potentially cause irritation of the nose, throat, and lungs, which can be accompanied by flu-like symptoms.
As far as emulsifying products go, however, xanthan gum is pretty safe. It’s not known to cause intestinal inflammation in most people when kept under that 15 grams per day limit.
Is It Possible to Have a Xanthan Gum Allergy?
Yes, xanthan gum can trigger food allergy reactions! It’s derived from sugars—and those sugars may come from corn, dairy, soy, and wheat, all of which are known to cause allergic reactions at times. If you have an allergy to any of these things, it’s best to avoid xanthan gum.
Is Xanthan Gum Gluten-Free?
Although xanthan gum can be derived from wheat, it’s actually found in many gluten-free foods as a gluten substitute. If a certified gluten-free product contains xanthan gum, you can assume it’s safe.
Is Xanthan Gum Keto-Friendly?
There are about eight grams of carbohydrates and eight grams of fiber in one tablespoon of xanthan gum. (Usually, however, you will be consuming much less than that as a food additive.) So, if you’re following a ketogenic diet, then xanthan gum is generally acceptable.
Is Xanthan Gum Vegan?
It depends. Sometimes xanthan gum is vegan, but it can be made with whey, so vegans may want to double check!
What Are the Negative Effects of Xanthan Gum?
At doses greater than 15 grams per day, xanthan gum can cause a few negative side effects. These include:
- Upset stomach or intestinal distress
- Increased frequency of bowel movements
- Softer stools
- Increased gas or flatulence
- Altered gut bacteria
- Lowered blood sugar
- Nutrient malabsorption
In some cases, these negative side effects have been leveraged as treatments. For example, in people with high blood sugar, xanthan gum has been used in research to lower blood sugar. Because it’s a fiber that can soften stools, it has also been used as a bulk-forming laxative.
Who Should Avoid Xanthan Gum?
People with severe corn, dairy, soy, and wheat allergies should avoid xanthan gum. You can also work with your doctor to test whether you may be sensitive to xanthan gum.
Pregnant people and infants should also avoid xanthan gum after reports that SimplyThick, a xanthan gum thickener that was added to formula for infants caused several cases of necrotizing enterocolitis, which is a disease that causes intestinal inflammation. This is a disease that can lead to the death of damaged portions of the intestines, which can ultimately lead to the death of the patient.
People with undiagnosed nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain should avoid xanthan gum and other bulk-forming laxatives that can worsen the condition.
If you are expecting surgery, it’s wise to avoid xanthan gum since it can lower blood sugar. There are concerns that it may impact blood sugar control during the surgery and afterward, too, which is why experts recommend avoiding xanthan gum for at least two weeks prior to your surgery.
Xanthan Gum Versus Guar Gum: What’s the Difference?
Guar gum and xanthan gum can be substituted for each other. Both are thickening and binding agents, though guar gum is considered better for cold foods like ice cream or pastry filling while xanthan gum works better in baked foods like yeast bread. Whereas xanthan gum is made in a lab using sugars and bacteria to ferment it, guar gum comes from the ground endosperm portion of the Cyamopsis tetragonolobus, which is a legume that is found in tropical Asia.
What Else Is Xanthan Gum Called?
“Xanthan gum” is the most common name for this ingredient, but in rare cases, you may find it listed under other names. These include:
- Bacterial polysaccharide
- Corn sugar gum
- Goma xantana
- Gomme de sucre de mais
- Gomme de xanthane
- Gomme xanthane
- Polysaccharide bacterien
- Polysaccharide de type xanthane
- Polysaccharide xanthane
- Xanthomonas campestris
Many of these names can be found on imported products. In the U.S., “xanthan gum” is the most common term that you’ll find on ingredient lists.
What is Safe That Can Be Used Instead of Xanthan Gum?
There are lots of safe alternatives to xanthan gum out there! If you’re looking for a thickener, try any of the following:
- Agar agar: Agar agar comes from red algae, which makes it a vegan-friendly alternative to gelatins and other animal-based thickeners. It works just like xanthan gum, thickening dishes nicely.
- Chia Seeds: Soak them in water to create a gel that acts a lot like xanthan gum. They’re not a perfect substitute since the seeds will add crunch to your recipe—but you can grind them for a smoother texture.
- Cornstarch: Cornstarch is excellent as a thickener in cooked foods like stew and gravy, one that will give you a nice, smooth texture. Swap it out in a 1-to-1 ratio when using it as a replacement for xanthan gum.
- Egg Whites: Egg whites work well in cakes and breads, giving you a light, fluffy texture. Use one egg white to replace every tablespoon of xanthan gum.
- Ground Flax Seeds: These work the same as chia seeds when you combine ground seeds with water—though it’ll give your recipe a grittier texture and a mildly nutty flavor.
- Psyllium Husk: This comes from the husks of Plantago ovata seeds, which are ground into a powder suitable for baking.
- Unflavored Gelatin: If you want vegan or vegetarian substitutes, this one won’t work. However, it does a good job of thickening a lot of different dishes, including cooked foods and baked goods.
Is Xanthan Gum Right for You?
When it comes to health and nutrition, you are the deciding factor. Xanthan gum is considered generally safe by most experts—though when consumed at high doses, it can cause problems. Those with chronic health conditions (especially involving gut and digestive health) might want to consider being more careful with xanthan gum consumption.
What do you think? Is xanthan gum something you want to eat, or something you would classify as natural or artificial? Eliminating it from our diets isn’t easy, but it can be done if we’re willing to forego processed foods in favor of homemade goodness.
About the Author
Amber Kanuckel’s work has appeared in the Farmers’ Almanac, the Ohio Amish Country Magazine, GreenPrints and in a variety of newspapers. She believes a happy life starts with health—and much of her work focuses on creating a happy, healthy home.
Image Credits: Polina Tankilevitch, Klaus Nielsen, Delphine Hourlay