When looking at today’s food industry landscape, purchasing trends over the last few years have made one thing abundantly clear: contemporary consumers are very interested in knowing more about what’s in their food.
A host of recent surveys have emphasized that people are placing a higher value than ever on things like transparency in food labeling, nutrition information that is easy to access and understand, and recognizable ingredients.
In this context, it is important to become more familiar with additives and ingredients that are commonly used in many foods, yet still not well understood by most consumers. Knowledge will help support people in making more informed decisions about the products they choose to purchase and consume.
Now in the spotlight: xanthan gum.
You’ve probably spotted xanthan gum listed on more than a few nutrition labels, particularly if you use products like bottled salad dressing or sauces. Read on to learn more about this common additive.
What is xanthan gum?
Used in many foods and commercial products, xanthan gum is a hydrocolloid. It is produced when sugar is fermented by a particular type of bacteria. Because of its unique properties, it is typically used as a thickener and stabilizer.
How is xanthan gum made?
Natural fermentation (of foods like corn, soy, wheat, or cabbage) is the process at the heart of xanthan gum production. Bacteria known as xanthomonas campestris digest the sugars in the vegetables.
They then produce a complex sugar polymer which has the gooey texture of a thick broth. Alcohol is added to make this substance solid, and it is then dried and pulverized into a powder.
How long has xanthan gum been around?
Xanthan gum was discovered in the 1950s by Allene Rosalind Jeanes, a chemist and researcher with the US Department of Agriculture. Jeanes was researching polysaccharides (large molecules composed of chains of thousands of sugar molecules) when a soft drink company sent a sample of one of their products to her lab.
The beverage had become thick and gooey, and they wanted to find out what had happened to it. Jeanes determined that the drink had become contaminated with a type of bacteria. This contamination had resulted in the production of dextran, a viscous polysaccharide very similar to xanthan gum.
Through further work and research, Jeanes was able to isolate these bacteria. This allowed dextran to be produced at will and eventually led to her discovery of xanthan gum.
Why is xanthan gum used in foods?
Due to its thick, viscous nature, xanthan gum is used to stabilize and thicken foods. Because it can help keep solid particles in suspension, it’s a frequent addition to foods that need a little help to stick together.
For example, when xanthan gum is added to a salad dressing that contains spices, it helps keep the spices evenly suspended throughout the dressing. It also prevents the liquid and oil from separating. Xanthan gum also offers a smooth, consistent texture and improved mouthfeel, and it can even help boost the shelf life of many products.
What kinds of foods typically contain xanthan gum?
Xanthan gum is used in a wide range of foods. Many of these are liquid in nature, such as salad dressings, sauces and gravies, fruit juices, syrups, and soups. Other products like ice cream and baked goods also make frequent use of xanthan gum.
Is xanthan gum safe?
Xanthan gum received full food additive approval from the US Food and Drug Administration in 1969. Products are only added to this list after a full safety assessment has been conducted. Since that time, many other countries have approved the use of xanthan gum as a safe food additive.
What are some of the advantages of xanthan gum?
For commercial products and home cooks alike, xanthan gum offers a number of benefits. It performs a similar function as gelatin in many recipes, but it is completely non-animal-based, so it can be safely consumed by those on a vegan diet.
Xanthan gum is also very useful in gluten-free cooking. It effectively replaces the elasticity, suspension, and stickiness that gluten provides in traditional baked goods and other products.
Why is xanthan gum sometimes criticized?
Xanthan gum is similar in structure to soluble fibers, which are carbohydrates that your body cannot break down. This means that your body cannot digest xanthan gum.
Because of this, consuming too much xanthan gum can lead to digestive discomfort or produce a laxative effect. However, because only very low levels of xanthan gum are used in most food products (typically less than 0.3 percent), these side effects are very unlikely.
Can xanthan gum be used in home food preparation?
The dried and powdered form of xanthan gum is readily available for purchase as an ingredient for everyday home food preparation. It can usually be found in the baking supplies aisle of your local grocery store.