Xanthan Gum: Benefits, Substitutions and Side Effects

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Xanthan GumXanthan gum benefits are relatively modest, yet handy. You may have never heard of xanthan gum and are wondering what it is. The answer is actually quite simple. Xanthan gum is a substance made of sugar residue that’s produced by a type of bacteria found in plants and commonly used as a thickening or stabilizing agent in a number of food and industrial products.

Given that this additive is something you have likely consumed several times in the past few days or weeks, it’s natural to be curious about it or concerned that it may have health effects. Let’s explore, shall we?

Xanthan Gum Benefits and Uses

Xanthan gum’s thickening/stabilizing properties help give some foods or products a desired consistency or otherwise hold their ingredients together properly. Among its uses, xanthan gum is employed in many toothpastes, yogurts, lotions, medicines, puddings, jams, sauces, ice cream, baked goods, and cosmetics. It’s also a popular substitute in gluten-free baking (more on this later).

In terms of health benefits, xanthan gum has only a few modest (but handy) effects. The most noticeable is that it tends to increase the viscosity of any liquid it’s used in, which can help people with muscular or neurological abnormalities swallow more easily. More xanthan gum benefits: Xanthan gum slows down digestion, lowering the absorption of cholesterol or sugar just like soluble fibers. Other than that, xanthan gum in larger amounts can be a rather impressive laxative.

Is Xanthan Gum Safe to Consume?

So, is xanthan gum bad for you? As mentioned above, xanthan gum’s biggest health “risk” is that it can be a potent laxative. However, you shouldn’t be worried about products containing xanthan making you run to the bathroom. The laxative properties tend to kick in when you have around 15 grams per day, which is difficult to acquire from a regular diet.

Those who have digestive issues, however, may find that xanthan gum products cause flatulence or bloating. Powdered xanthan gum can also cause nose, throat, and lung irritation if inhaled and there is anecdotal evidence that the powder can be a skin irritant.

Xanthan Gum Allergies

Xanthan gum is derived from plants and can sometimes carry along proteins from the plant it came from. This is not an issue for most people, even those with allergies. However, those whose food allergies are particularly sensitive may find them triggered by certain forms of xanthan gum. Basically, if you have a strong wheat, dairy, soy, corn, or similar allergy, it may be advisable to avoid products with xanthan gum unless you can identify what the exact source is. There is no known xanthan gum allergy.

Xanthan Gum Substitutes

Xanthan gum is used as a gluten replacement in recipes due to how well it can bind ingredients together. However, the taste and slightly gummy texture does not appeal to everyone. Getting enough to cook with can also be pricey since xanthan gum is sometimes sold as a high-priced “healthy” alternative to gluten, despite its relatively few health effects. If you are looking for an alternative to xanthan gum, consider one of the following options.

  • Psyllium fiber: This is a form of soluble fiber you may have seen sold as a dietary supplement. Adding psyllium fiber to a recipe allows you to, for instance, bind the ingredients in bread together. However, psyllium fiber is not a simple 1:1 substitute for xanthan gum. For starters, you’ll need more of it, though how much more will depend on the recipe. You will also need more water to compensate for what the fiber will absorb. If you are using a gluten-free recipe that mentions psyllium fiber, more specific measurements should be provided.
  • Flaxseed: In addition to being a good source of omega-3, flaxseed can be an effective binding agent if prepared properly. The most important thing to remember is that the seeds have to be ground up to have any binding effect. Once ground into a fine powder, mix the seeds with boiling water to form a thick paste that can then be incorporated into your recipe as a xanthan substitute.
  • Gelatin: A probiotic ingredient that also sees use as a stabilizer or binding agent in a few different products. Again, simply mix with water to create the mixture you need and slip it into the recipe. Please note that, since gelatin is an animal byproduct, anything you make will not be considered vegan.
  • Agar agar: Do you like the texture of xanthan gum but not the taste? Then this seaweed-derived gelatin substitute may be the thing for you. Agar agar is tasteless, fast-acting thickening agent that can be used in similar amounts to gelatin, and can be a good way to make some recipes vegan-friendly.

Xanthan Gum Side Effects

Unless you inhale it, xanthan gum is fairly safe—but that doesn’t mean the substance is completely free of adverse effects. Xanthan gum slows sugar absorption and can cause interactions with certain diabetes medications as a result. Diabetics, therefore, are advised to be wary of any xanthan gum in their foods and to limit their daily intake to only 12 grams; for non-diabetics, the advisable limit is 15 grams.

The FDA has advised against giving xanthan gum to infants, because its thickening properties for liquids can pose a choking hazard. Also, the effects of large amounts of xanthan gum have not been studied in pregnant or breastfeeding women. As a precaution, it’s advisable that these individuals do not have more xanthan gum than is found in their normal foods.

So do xanthan gum benefits outweigh the side-effects? You decide…but it should be emphasized that xanthan gum is a bulk-forming laxative. Like all laxatives of its kind, it should not be taken if you have fecal impactation, undiagnosed stomach pains, appendicitis, nausea, or vomiting, since it may exacerbate those symptoms.

Sources for Today’s Article:
“Xanthan Gum: Uses and Risks,” Web MD web site; http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/xanthan-gum-uses-and-risks, last accessed March 9, 2016.
“Xanthan Gum: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings,” Web MD web site; http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-340-xanthangum.aspx?activeingredientid=340, last accessed March 9, 2016.
“Can you be allergic to xanthan gum?” What allergy web site, March 11, 2013; http://whatallergy.com/2013-03/can-you-be-allergic-to-xanthan-gum.