Move over xylophone. In the nutrition world, X is for xanthan gum.
Xanthan gum’s a food additive that’s used in products from ice cream to salad dressing. It helps add a thicker, more consistent texture to some of your fave foods. Some folks even keep it in their kitchens to make gluten-free versions of their baked goods.
Whether you’re looking for the science behind this common ingredient, or wondering WTF it actually is, you’ve come to the right place.
Is xanthan gum bad for you?
Xanthan gum is considered safe to eat in the amounts found in foods and drinks. But a research review showed that it could lead to digestive conditions in some people, especially if they consume a lot of it. It’s not a concern for most folks, though.
It’s made by fermenting sugar with strains of bacteria and adding alcohol. Once this dries out, it forms a powder that can be easily added during food production.
Xanthan gum powder helps thicken and stabilize products. That’s why it’s used in products like ice cream, salad dressings, and sauces. It’s also used in personal care and beauty products like toothpaste and moisturizers.
FYI: Some xanthan gum could be produced with animal-derived products like whey. You can contact the food manufacturer if you’re not sure how your xanthan gum was made.
Xanthan gum didn’t get this popular for no reason. It offers some pretty sweet benefits.
Improves texture and consistency
Xanthan gum is used in tons of food and drink products to improve taste, texture, and consistency.
It can help give gluten-free baked goods (like breads) a springy texture and keep ice cream smooth and thick.
Helps make food safer to swallow
Some people have difficulty swallowing foods and drinks. (This can happen if you’ve had a stroke or if you develop multiple sclerosis.)
Other potential benefits
A 2012 study suggested that xanthan gum may help reduce blood sugar levels in people with diabetes when it’s combined with a type of fiber called beta glucan or when it’s added to foods. But research in this area is limited. Many of the studies suggesting that xanthan gum is helpful for blood sugar control are small and outdated.
On the other hand, a research review showed that xanthan gum may also have laxative effects when used in high doses, which could be helpful for some folks. That might not be desirable if you’re not dealing with constipation, though.
FYI: These effects are linked to taking large doses of xanthan gum. They haven’t been linked to the amounts typically found in food.
Additionally, a research review suggested that even large doses of xanthan gum don’t have adverse health effects on adults. This review referred to higher doses than the small amounts used in food.
In fact, scientists believe it’s so safe for healthy adults that there’s currently no set acceptable daily limit or ADI. That means there’s no maximum daily amount of a xanthan gum you can consume before you harm your health.
Who shouldn’t eat xanthan gum?
A 2012 case report showed that xanthan gum can be dangerous (even deadly) for infants. SimplyThick (a product containing xanthan gum) has caused necrotizing enterocolitis.
There are some adult populations that should check with their doctors before using xanthan gum, including:
- folks with severe food allergies
- anyone taking medication that lowers their blood sugar
- people preparing for surgery
A research review showed that xanthan gum may cause side effects in certain people, especially if they get a lot of it. Some peeps may experience digestive conditions like bloating, gas, and diarrhea from high doses of xanthan gum. (But this is usually only seen when xanthan gum’s used as a supplement.)
Generally speaking, most peeps won’t have any concerns with foods that contain xanthan gum as an additive.
However, one study suggested that some peeps may be sensitive to food additives like gums. And another small study with animals suggested that getting lots of xanthan gum repeatedly may increase inflammation in certain people.
Pro tip: If you have concerns about consuming products that contain xanthan gum, talk with a healthcare professional like a doctor or registered dietitian.
Peeps following gluten-free diets may find xanthan gum especially handy for making the texture of gluten-free baked goods just as springy as gluten-filled products.
But if your recipe calls for xanthan gum and you have xanthan none, don’t fret. There are plenty of substitutes, including:
- Cornstarch. Good ole’ cornstarch makes an excellent stand-in for xanthan gum and can be used as a 1-to-1 replacement in recipes.
- Chia seeds and water. If you’ve ever made chia seed pudding, you’re familiar with chia’s thickening abilities. This gooey mix can be used to replace xanthan gum in a straight-up 1-to-1 ratio.
- Gelatin. Gelatin is another popular thickener that can replace xanthan gum in a 2-to-1 ratio. (Just keep in mind that gelatin isn’t a vegan option.)
- Agar-agar. This algae-derived product can be used as a thickener when xanthan gum isn’t available. You can sub agar-agar for xanthan gum with a 1-to-1 ratio.
- Guar gum. Guar gum is super similar to xanthan gum. If you’re in a pinch, guar gum can replace xanthan gum in recipes in a 3-to-1 ratio.
Xanthan gum is a commonly used food additive. It improves the texture and consistency of foods and beverages like ice cream, gluten-free baked goods, salad dressings, and sauces.
It’s considered very safe and isn’t linked to dangerous side effects. However, it may lead to symptoms like bloating, gas, and diarrhea if you take super high doses.
If you’ve got questions about xanthan gum or other foods additives, find a registered dietitian to work with. They can help you figure out what’s safe and what’s potentially problematic for your diet.