When I check the nutrition label on the back of a newfound snack, I sometimes feel like the child protagonist in a horror movie who slowly opens a haunted jack-in-the-box. Will the impossible-to-pronounce ingredients be worthy of ominous music? A blood-curdling scream? OK, so that’s a tad bit melodramatic, but chances are that I won’t recognize at least one of the elements of the food I’m currently chewing. That’s true of xanthan gum, a food additive that makes a cameo in many baked goods, frozen foods, dressings, dairy and meat products, and even pet food.
According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), xanthan gum is a carbohydrate made by the secretion of the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris (I know, cute), which is then harvested with an alcohol and ground into a fine powder. It’s approved for use in both organic and “made with organic” foods as a stabilizing and thickening agent. And its texturizing superpowers are part of why it’s so ubiquitously found in, well, almost everything you eat.
Obviously, most people aren’t into the idea of food additives, since many are associated with inflammation and other potential health issues. However, xanthan gum appears to be the least offensive of all of them—it’s even in products that you’ll find at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s). “[Xanthan gum] has been shown in studies to be safe for consumption, however, digestive issues have been noticed at high quantities,” says Rebekah Blakely, RDN, registered nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe. “There has been no significant negative effects seen elsewhere.” Studies conducted on the benefits of xanthan gum have been few and far between (and have mostly featured small sample sizes), but scroll down for a few findings you can chew on.
1. It may contain cancer-fighting properties
In a 2009 study published in the journal International Immunopharmacology, mice with tumor cells were given oral doses of xanthan gum every five days. The results concluded that the ingredient both slowed the growth rate of the tumor and helped the mice survive longer. Since no research has yet been conducted on human test subjects, however, we have to take these findings with a grain of salt.
2. It may help people with swallowing disorder (dysphagia) swallow more easily
“It may also help patients with dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) because it increases the viscosity of liquids and foods,” says Blakely, citing a 2014 study. 120 patients who had problems swallowing (including people who suffered from strokes or neurodegenerative diseases) were asked to swallow a “thin liquid” made thicker (and therefore more easy to swallow) by a xanthan gum solution, and found that it helped them swallow better.
3. It may lower blood sugar levels
In another teeny, tiny study from 2016, 11 female students with no history of diabetes were divided into several groups. One group was given plain-old rice while others were given various doses of xantham gum along with their rice serving. Researchers then recorded the blood sugar levels of participants 15, 30, 45, 60, 90, and 120 minutes afterward. And those in the groups with the extra ingredient—surprise, surprise—had lower blood sugar levels. However, since the study had such a small sample size, more research (on a larger body of people) is necessary.
Is there a such thing as having too much xanthan gum?
“The recommendation is not to exceed 15 grams per day of xanthan gum,” explains Blakely. Since it’s technically a form of fiber, the most common side effect of high amounts of xanthan gum is digestive distress, “as it seems to stimulate the digestive tract causing increased and/or loose stools and flatulence for some.” Fun! However, Blakely says that it shouldn’t be too difficult to limit your intake, since most foods only contain a trace amount. (For example, most protein powders contain less than half a gram.)
Xanthan gum is sometimes used as a substitute for gluten, so you’ll find it called for in many celiac-safe baking recipes. The Celiac Disease Foundation even recommends adding a wee bit to salad dressings to enhance the texture of your classic balsamic vinegar and olive oil combo. (Just be sure to look for one that’s certified gluten-free to be super safe.)
And there you have it—I guess peeking xanthan gum on your snack label isn’t such a jump scare after all.
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