Ask Keri: Xanthan gum appears on many ingredient lists. What is it, and is it healthy?
Keri Says: Like carrageenan, xanthan gum is a popular food additive you’ve likely stumbled over while reading ingredient lists. And since it’s used in many packaged foods that are pitched as healthy, it’s even more important to know whether or not you should be avoiding it.
The bottom line: It’s not nearly as scary as the unpronounceable name suggests. Xanthan gum is generally considered safe, and you’re likely consuming less than you think. While it is ubiquitous, it’s added to most foods in tiny amounts.
What Is Xanthan Gum?
Basically, xanthan gum is made by fermenting sugar with specific bacteria. It’s popular because it’s a great thickener and stabilizer.
You’ll find it in salad dressings, sauces, ice cream, and other packaged foods and personal-care products. It’s even more prevalent in gluten-free products, since it can mimic the elasticity and fluffiness of gluten and is also used to give low-fat and nonfat foods a fatty texture. (I suggest you choose full-fat in most cases, anyway, so no issue there.)
Since xanthan gum is a soluble fiber, your body can’t break it down, meaning it provides no calories or nutrients.
RELATED: The Guide to Fiber
Is Xanthan Gum Healthy?
Unlike carrageenan, all signs point to the relative safety of xanthan gum. The FDA says it’s safe, as does the Environmental Working Group (an organization that is generally way more cautious, in a good way).
In fact, most reliable research points to a potential health benefit: lower blood sugar. Several studies have shown larger doses (than are commonly found in food) may reduce blood sugar, especially in those with diabetes.
The only potential downside that’s been identified is xanthan gum can affect digestion, causing gas and more frequent trips to the bathroom. But even those side effects are unlikely to occur unless large doses (around 15 grams) are eaten, and that amount would be pretty hard to get from food. (A typical person consumes less than 1 gram per day.)
One caveat: the sugar that’s fermented to make xanthan gum can come from corn, soy, dairy, or wheat, and it’s hard to know which one it is. So If you have any severe allergy, it’s best to avoid it. Otherwise, don’t stress over this strangely-named thickener.
(Featured Photo: Shutterstock)