As a health and food writer, I interview dietitians, nutritionists, and doctors virtually every day, picking their brains on what’s healthy and what isn’t. Regardless of the eating plan or food trend of the moment, there’s one piece of advice they repeat over and over again: “Buy products where you recognize everything on the ingredients list.”
It sounds simple enough: If a food is branded as healthy but has an ingredients list 20 lines deep, full of terms that I’ve never heard of, I’m going to put it back on the shelf. But a lot of the products I gravitate towards—alternative milks, dairy-free ice-creams, gluten-free pastas—often have a very simple label, except for one ingredient that leaves me scratching my head: gums. Whether it’s xanthan gum, guar gum, or locust bean gum, they’re ingredients I see popping up again and again, often on an otherwise very easy to understand ingredients list.
“Different gums are used for different things,” registered dietitian Kim Melton, RD, tells me. “Most are binding and thickening agents that help products, like sauces or alternative milks, get thicker.” Melton adds that while some gums may cause digestive problems in some people, all of them are widely considered safe and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
To gain a bit more knowledge about the most popular gums used in healthy foods and drinks, I had Melton walk me through each one, explaining what it was, what it’s used for, and how it can affect the body. Keep reading for her full intel.
Not only does xanthan gum regularly make appearances in salad dressings, baked goods, juices, gluten-free foods, vegan ice creams, and sauces, many healthy recipes you’ll find online actually call for it. “Xantham gum is a polysaccharide [a carbohydrate whose molecules consist of bonded sugar molecules] and it’s a soluble fiber. This means it can’t be broken down or absorbed by your body, and there’s no calories in it,” Melton explains.
Despite its healthy-sounding qualities—fiber! no calories!—Melton says that while xanthan gum isn’t bad for you, it’s not bursting with health benefits either. “It’s certainly not going to be heralded as the next superfood,” she says. Melton also adds that xanthan gum—and all the gums, really—tend to be used in such small amounts that they aren’t going to affect the body much either way. The major exception is if you have a sensitivity. Then, she says, excessive consumption of it could cause constipation or diarrhea. “Polysaccharide is a FODMAP, so if FODMAP foods bother you, then you want to steer clear of it,” she says.
You might have seen agar agar on the label for foods such as cheese, marmalades, or candies. “It’s essentially a gel,” Melton explains of the jelly-like substance that’s sourced from a specific type of algae. (It’s often used in vegan baking and cooking as an alternative to gelatin.) Similar to xanthan gum, Melton says agar agar is typically used in very small amounts, so your body is not going to be affected much. Because it’s sourced from algae—a wellness world fave—there may be health benefits, but in very small amounts.
Melton explains that cellulose gum is another binding ingredient, often used in baked foods, sauces, and marmalades. “Cellulose is a plant fiber, and because of that, many brands will include it so they can call themselves a high-fiber food,” Melton says, adding the claim isn’t truthful. “Cellulose is a soluble fiber, which means your body can’t absorb it, and again, it’s probably only being used in a very small amount.”
Yet again, another thickening agent, Melton says guar gum is more commonly used in other countries and not the US, but you may still is showing up in ingredients lists from time-to-time. “It’s made from legumes, which is a good fiber-rich source,” she says. This is one where the sourcing does get her stamp of approval, but she does offer up this caveat: “Like xanthan gum, guar is a polysaccharide, so if you’re on the low-FODMAP diet, you want to stay away from it,” she says.
Locust bean gum
Sourced from carob tree seeds (not locusts!), locust bean gum is often found in dairy-free products and condiments as a (you guessed it) thickener. “It’s a soluble fiber and you’ll find some studies out there linking it to lowering blood sugar, but if you look at the studies, the participants are consuming more than the very small amount that’s being used in products that contain it,” Melton says. Just like the others, she says not to expect any life-changing effects, but it is widely seen as safe.
The bottom line with gums is that they really aren’t much to worry about. If you do have a sensitive digestive system, Melton says they are something you want to be aware of as it may cause some unpleasant tummy troubles. But if you’ve eaten foods with gums in them and are totally fine, you can feel a-okay about seeing them on the label every now and then.
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