Xanthan Gum Food Additive - A Mega Guide
Today’s gastronome is more informed than ever before. Consumers not only want to know how many calories their tasty fare contains, but what it’s made of and where it comes from, too.
Suffice it to say that the modern man (and woman) isn’t going to buy something simply for the slick packaging. Not only must it be delicious, but it also needs to be “clean," sustainable, and, more often than not, gluten, soy, and sugar-free. Simply put, food is heavily scrutinized and only the creme de la creme is worth the price of admission.
One ingredient that’s found in more than a few packaged products (and a ton of gluten-free ones) is xanthan gum. In fact, it’s one of the most common additives in just about everything you purchase, not just food.
No doubt you’ve seen the ingredient listed before, and probably wondered a time or two, what the heck it is and if it’s considered “clean” or “safe” to eat. That’s what we’re here to answer. We’ve compiled a complete breakdown of xanthan gum - what it is, where it comes from, and whether or not you should be concerned if it’s in your food.
Let’s see what this is ingredient is all about.
What is Xanthan Gum?
Xanthan gum is an incredibly popular, and widely used, food additive typically used for its ability to thicken or stabilize packaged goods. Specifically, xanthan gum is a complex exopolysaccharide, a polymer composed of sugar residues that are secreted by Xanthomonas campestris (a type of bacteria) into its surrounding environment. Basically, this bacteria gobbles up simple sugars and turns them into complex carbohydrates which result in xanthan gum.
For example, when sugar is fermented by Xanthomonas campestris, it creates a goo-like substance. Alcohol is then added to this goo, transforming it into a solid, which is then dried and turned into a powder, packaged and delivered to store shelves or used in food manufacturing plants as an additive. It’s also worth mentioning that xanthan gum can be made from your common kitchen waste, if you ever want to tap into your inner chemist. 
When xanthan gum powder is added to liquid, it creates a very stable and syrupy solution, making the additive a great thickening agent for all sorts of products. 
Xanthan gum was first discovered in 1963, and since that time, it’s been heavily researched and deemed safe for human consumption by the FDA.  Additionally, there is no limitation on how much xanthan gum a food can contain either, which we’ll address a bit later on in this article.
In the diet, xanthan gum is classified as a soluble fiber, a form of carbohydrate that the human body cannot digest. Like other soluble fibers following ingestion, xanthan gum absorbs water and turns into a gel-like substance in your digestive system, which slows digestion, increasing satiety and reducing appetite. 
Common Uses for Xanthan Gum
Xanthan gum can be found in A LOT of things, including:
- Baked goods (including gluten-free options, too)
- Boxed desserts (including pudding)
- Salad dressings
- Pastry fillings
- Jams and jellies
- Ice cream
- Industrial uses
There’s many additional applications which find use for xanthan gum, but these are the ones you’re most likely to encounter on a daily basis.
Benefits of Xanthan Gum
You’re probably wondering if there is any actual benefit to this Franken-fiber, or is it just some form of cheap filler the food industry uses to create their tasty concoctions. It just so happens there are a few well-documented benefits to xanthan gum:
A 2009 study published in the journal International Immunopharmacology, found that xanthan gum demonstrated cancer-combatting properties.  Researchers evaluated the antitumor effects of xanthan gum in mice and found that consumption of the exopolysaccharide “significantly retarded tumor growth and prolonged survival of the mice inoculated subcutaneously with B16K(b) melanoma cells.” 
Helps With Swallowing Difficulties
Oropharyngeal dysphagia is a condition characterized by an individual have difficulty initiating a swallow. In other words, they have trouble swallowing, whether it be pills, food, etc. This is typically brought on by complications or abnormalities in the muscles and nerves of the esophagus.
While difficulty swallowing can be caused by a number of things, it’s most commonly seen in individuals who have recently experienced a stroke.  Fortunately, xanthan gum-based thickeners have been shown to improve oropharyngeal dysphagia in patients, due to its ability to increase the viscosity of the food being swallowed. 
Mitigates Blood Sugar Spikes
Xanthan gum might also find use by Type II diabetics too. When added to fruit juice, the exopolysaccharide increased juice viscosity and reduced the glucose peak response compared to patients consuming fruit juice with no added polysaccharides. 
Another study involving 13 men (nine with diabetes and four without diabetes) gauged the effects of xanthan gum on blood sugar levels. Every day for 12 weeks, men consumed a muffin. The first six weeks, subjects consumed a muffin without xanthan gum, and the following six weeks they consumed a muffin containing 12 grams of the soluble fiber. 
Researchers documented that fasting and postprandial (after-meal) blood sugar levels were significantly lower in the diabetic men following ingestion of the muffins made with xanthan gum. 
Keeps You “Regular”
When you consider the fact that xanthan gum is a soluble fiber, it should come as no surprise that it can improve bowel movements. When men were given 15g/day of the food additive for 10 days, the men experienced increased stool output and frequency of defecation along with increased flatulence as well (something to keep in mind if you have a big date one night). 
Is Xanthan Gum Safe?
Xanthan gum is generally considered safe by the research community and certified GRAS by the FDA.  The “upper limit” seems to be around 15 grams or so, as any more than that has been shown to lead to significant increases in bowel movements and flatulence. 
This is particularly important if you consume a heavy amount of packaged foods during the day, since it’s so prevalently used. However, if your only “processed” food that you’re consuming is protein powder, you should be A-OK, as one serving of these powders typically contains less than half a gram of the compound.
Outside of the minor GI distress, you might experience when consuming large quantities of xanthan gum, research consistently shows that it’s fairly harmless. A 1973 study published in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, evaluated the effects of feeding dogs xanthan gum at 1.0 g/kg of xanthan gum per day (roughly equal to 68g/day for humans) and found that:
“No significant effect on growth rate, survival, hematologic values, organ weights or tumor incidence... Soft stools were noted more frequently for the high- and middle-level males, but the differences from the control group barely reached the level of statistical significance.” 
In other words, xanthan gum is pretty benign, outside of some minor digestive upset if you venture past the 15g/day threshold. As further proof, a 1987 study had male participants consume 10.4 or 12.9 grams of xanthan gum every day for 3 weeks.  Researchers observed that while the men experienced changes stool texture and weight, it did not significantly affect:
- Blood markers
- Glucose tolerance
- Insulin tests
- Immune markers
- Plasma biochemistry
- HDL cholesterol
- Urinalysis parameters
- Breath hydrogen
- Breath methane (a marker of sugar malabsorption)
Taken all together, you can feel at peace knowing the xanthan gum you’re eating daily isn’t impacting any critical markers of health present from blood tests, and that it essentially only affects your digestive system from start to finish.
The recommended acceptable daily intake (ADI) of xanthan gum for humans is 0-10mg/kg each day.  Keep in mind that xanthan gum does have a pronounced laxative effect when consumed at doses equal to or exceeding 15g/day. 
Thinking you might mix some xanthan gum into your new baby’s formula to help offset some of the constipation that plagues infants? Think again, as xanthan gum is NOT recommended for infants since it may increase the risk of infection and death. 
The food industry is not required to state how much xanthan gum is in their respective products, making it exceedingly difficult to gauge how much you ingest of the soluble fiber each day. That being said, if you do experience a significant amount of GI upset from certain products containing xanthan gum, consider finding replacements for those options.
Alternatives to Xanthan Gum
Maybe the idea of some bacterial by-product in your food doesn’t sound too appealing, and you’re looking for a few more “natural” options to use in your foods to yield the same effects from xanthan gum.
You’re in luck, as nature has bequeathed unto you several options to thicken, stabilize, and “viscofy” your favorite foods:
A staple of ancient Aztec, Mayan, and Inca cultures, chia seeds are a superseed packed with protein, fiber, and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation (one of the leading causes of cardiovascular disease). 
When added to liquid, chia seeds gelatinize fairly quickly forming a gel-like substance that can improve the structural integrity of baked goods, making it an ideal option for gluten-free breads and desserts. Additionally, since chia seeds absorb so much water, it also helps prevent baked goods from becoming dried out, a common complaint of gluten-free baked foods.
Another equally popular superseed is flax seed. Similar to chia, flax is also one of the highest plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids and prevalently used throughout the centuries, as is the case with chia. Modern-day research has uncovered a wealth of benefits to flax consumption, with various studies linking it to improving important health markers in people with high cholesterol, obesity, and cancer. 
Typically, flax is ground into a powder and mixed with a liquid, where it’s used as a binding agent to help hold baked goods together. Note that whole flax seeds do not gel, which is why they must be pulverized into a fine powder before adding to your gluten-free baked goods.
Frequently sold as a fiber supplement to help you “get things moving” Psyllium is an equally effective replacement for xanthan gum in your foods. It’s an excellent source of fiber and reputed for its ability to improve insulin sensitivity and cholesterol.  As for backing, research shows that adding up to 5-10% psyllium can improve baking characteristics bread, such as crumb texture. 
Ever wonder wakes makes Jello jiggle? It’s gelatin.
Gelatin is created from the breakdown of collagen. It’s been used as a form of natural medicine throughout history to treat food allergies/sensitivities and supporting gut health. Similar to all the other alternatives on this list, gelatin is a prime “gelling” ingredient to use in your baked goods and desserts.
Last but not least, is agar agar, a plant-based alternative to gelatin, which is an animal product. While there’s nothing wrong with gelatin, vegans and vegetarians tend to avoid the ingredient, yet still want something that exerts the same effects in their foods. Enter agar agar.
Derived from seaweed, agar agar is flavorless and mixes with water just like gelatin. It’s ideal to use when baking bread and has even been used by the Japanese to combat diabetes and improve important metabolic parameters. 
Xanthan gum is an incredibly common food additive, generally regarded as safe. It’s found in everything from petroleum products to protein powders, and even been shown to have some noteworthy health benefits too.
Do you need to watch out for it? Only if you’re consuming more than 15g/day, and if you are, then you might want to keep a bathroom close by.
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