Looking to do some gluten-free baking? Starting a ketogenic diet? Just curious about what xanthan gum is used for, and whether it’s safe? Keep reading, and this article will let you know all about this food product and what you can do with it.
What Is Xanthan Gum?
Xanthan gum is a food additive that works as a natural thickening agent or emulsifier in recipes. It’s most often a corn sugar, but can also be derived from wheat or soy, and is specifically a byproduct of the bacteria (Xanthomonas campestris) that eat up vegetables, causing them to rot.
It’s gluten free, and so for those who are on a low-carb keto diet, or those who have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, it may be particularly useful. However, as far as gluten-free products go, while xanthan gum is touted as a natural emulsifier, it’s also found in industrial products like wallpaper glue. That might make anyone pause and wonder, “Is xanthan gum bad for you? Has anyone proven it safe for human consumption?”
Is Xanthan Gum Safe? What Are Its Uses?
While xanthan gum is used in industrial products, it is also safe for use in food. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States, xanthan gum may be safely used in food so long as it meets certain purity standards. In fact, you may have already consumed xanthan gum without realizing it, as it’s an ingredient in many items, including toothpaste. Typical products containing xanthan gum include:
|Salad dressings||Creams, lotions|
|Baked goods||Shampoos, conditioners|
|Ice creams, sherbets||Medicines|
|Yogurts, jellos, puddings||Tile, grout, and toilet bowl cleaners|
|Soups, sauces, syrups, jams||Fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides|
When xanthan gum powder is added to a liquid it dissolves and thickens, making it a useful additive for many products, from cosmetics to building materials. As a food additive and recipe ingredient however, it’s particularly appealing for several reasons.
- Xanthan gum is gluten free. A gluten-free thickening agent like xanthan gum can be a wonderful boon to those who can’t comfortably eat or digest gluten.
- Xanthan gum is calorie free. Because your body cannot break down xanthan gum, it doesn’t provide you any nutrients, but it’s also calorie-free, making it great for those on keto diets or trying to lose weight.
- Xanthan gum helps keep you regular. Because xanthan gum is considered a soluble fiber, meaning it’s a carb that your body cannot digest, it can be used to help promote digestive health and regularity.
The Benefits of Xanthan Gum
While naturally it would be unsafe to consume some xanthan gum products (wallpaper glue, toilet bowl cleaner, no thank you), when it’s used in recipes or food products, it can bring a certain number of health benefits.
1. May Help Lower Blood Sugar
Taking enough xanthan gum may help prevent diabetes by lowering blood sugar. Its thickening ability when applied to the fluids in your stomach and small intestine slows down the digestive process, and thereby slows down the rate at which blood sugar enters the bloodstream. That means that after a meal, there is a less dramatic spike in blood sugar, which may help reduce the risk of developing diabetes.
One study investigated a mixed group of men with and without diabetes over 12 weeks. The first 6 weeks they were given a muffin each day without xanthan gum, and the next 6 weeks they consumed a muffin per day with 12 grams of xanthan gum. The results of their fasting and after-meal blood sugar levels showed that the men with diabetes had lower blood sugar levels after eating the xanthan gum muffins. This was also found to be true for women. Another study of 11 women revealed that consuming rice with xanthan gum led to lower blood sugar levels when compared to consuming rice without it.
2. Helps Treat Dry Mouth
Dry mouth (xerostomia) is a condition in which the salivary glands don’t produce enough saliva to keep the mouth wet. This can be the result of radiation therapy treatments for cancer patients, a side effect of some medications, or an unfortunate result of natural aging. Xanthan gum can work as a saliva substitute for those suffering from dry mouth.
3. Helps Reduce Blood Cholesterol
A study revealed that 5 men who ate xanthan gum at 10 times the recommended amount each day for 23 days showed a decrease in their cholesterol levels by 10%.
4. May Have Anti-Cancer Benefits
A study on mice with melanoma showed that xanthan gum slowed the growth of cancerous tumors and prolonged the lives of the infected mice.
5. Helps Aid Weight Loss
Due to its viscosity once consumed, xanthan gum leads to increased feelings of fullness and satiety after a meal, which often reduces one’s overall calorie consumption throughout the day. Not only that, but because xanthan gum cannot be digested, it can be ingested without contributing any extra calories. For those who struggle with hunger and appetite control while dieting, xanthan gum can be a real boon.
6. Promotes Regular Digestion
Because xanthan gum acts as a soluble fiber when consumed, it contributes to softer, bulkier waste that is easier to pass through the digestive system. Not only can it be used to help ease constipation, but it also promotes overall regularity and can lead to more frequent, comfortable bowel movements.
7. Thickens Liquids
Not just in all the ways previously discussed (in food products and in the digestive tract), but xanthan gum is also used to thicken liquids for those who have dysphagia or difficulty swallowing due to certain neurological disorders.
Potential Side Effects
Now that you know the health benefits of xanthan gum, you also need to know about potential side effects. While xanthan gum can help those with constipation, it can also cause stools to be too soft and lead to diarrhea.
People sometimes report increased intestinal gas, diarrhea, and altered gut bacteria from use of xanthan gum. These reports are from studies in which people were given above 15 grams of xanthan gum, which would be difficult to exceed from regular food sources, whether in store-bought or homemade recipes. Some research has noted that while xanthan gum can alter gut bacteria, it does so by acting as a prebiotic, feeding good gut bacteria that may actually be beneficial to you.
Another possible red flag: while the Celiac Disease Foundation okays xanthan gum as gluten free and safe to eat, because it is derived from the bacterial fermentation of some potential allergens like soy, wheat, and dairy products, it’s recommended that you check with a manufacturer to find out how the xanthan gum is produced and from what source. In cases of severe allergies it may never be worth the risk, which is why we’ll next provide you with more gluten-free replacements.
What Are Xanthan Gum Replacements?
If you have doubts about xanthan gum, no worries: it’s not the only game in town when it comes to gluten-free bread recipes or low-calorie keto substitutes. Though xanthan gum can act as a stabilizing agent in sauces and baking, and can itself be used as a replacement for potato starch, gluten-free flour, arrowroot, cornstarch, and tapioca, you may also want a xanthan gum substitute for keto or gluten-free diets. What follows is a list of replacement options for xanthan gum.
1. Guar Gum
Guar gum fiber comes from the guar bean and is useful as a thickening agent. It’s high-fiber content makes it helpful for bowel and digestive health, and it shows an ability to reduce blood sugar, lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, and improve satiety.
Made from boiling the bones, skin, or ligaments of cows and pigs (so while not a product for vegans, it is keto friendly), gelatin does provide a good source of amino acids and has been shown to help improve digestion and help prevent leaky gut syndrome. Closely related to collagen, it can improve skin health, boost bone health, and improve satiety as well.
The fiber from psyllium seed husks comes from the Plantago ovata plant. It’s a bulk-forming laxative that helps promote healthy digestion, and can act as both a constipation remedy and a treatment for diarrhea because it absorbs water. Psyllium husk powder has been shown to improve blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol, and won’t contribute to your carb count as it’s mostly made up of fiber.
Flaxseeds (from the Linum usitatissimum, meaning “the most useful flax plant”) are a wonderful source of dietary fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Because flaxseeds become sticky when mixed with water, they can act as a binding agent and natural emulsifier in keto and gluten-free recipes. Plus, flaxseeds also have been shown to help prevent high cholesterol, obesity, and cancer.
5. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds, from the Salvia hispanica plant, also take on a gel-like consistency when mixed with water or liquids (as when people make overnight oats with almond or soy milk). With more fiber and omega-3s than flaxseeds, this is another additive that brings digestive health and blood sugar control, and chia seeds work in both keto and vegan diets. Chia seeds are especially well-suited to fun and healthy smoothies.
Xanthan Gum and Beyond
Xanthan gum is one of many natural emulsifying options available to you. Gluten free and useful for treating constipation, there are nevertheless some reasons people may want to avoid it, despite its proven health benefits like improved blood sugar and the fact that it’s calorie free. There are other options if you want these same benefits from different natural sources, so research away, perhaps do some experimenting in your own kitchen, and take your pick of these many gluten-free food options.