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The Truth about Xanthan (and Many Gluten-Free Foods)

Is your gluten-free bread safe to eat?

If you’ve read the labels on packaged food lately, chances are good that you’ve seen xanthan gum listed on the label.  And, like most people you probably hesitated, wondering, “what exactly is xanthan gum?” and then wondered whether you should purchase this food product.  To help you make your own decision, let me share some information about xanthan, how it is made, and research as to whether this substance is healthy or not.

Xanthan gum is a carbohydrate that is secreted by bacteria known as Xanthomonas campestris.  It is used as a thickener and stabilizing ingredient in packaged foods and now, many baked goods, particularly gluten-free ones.  It is also used in many sauces and condiments, including McDonald’s rib sauce, for example.  (Check out my blog “Shocking 47 Ingredients in McRib.”)  Xanthomonas campestris bacteria cause a range of plant diseases, so naturally food manufacturers thought “let’s put these plant-disease-causing bacteria to work for us,” or something like that because everywhere I turn I’m seeing the byproduct of these bacteria, xanthan gum, in our food supply.

Xanthan gum occurs when these Xanthomonas campestris bacteria are mixed with fermented sugars, such as corn sugar, sugar from sugar beets or lactose, wheat, or soy to form a gummy substance.  And, yes, the corn, sugar beets, dairy, wheat, and soy likely contain genetically-modified organisms.  And, for those people with allergies to any of these items, you may be getting more than you bargained for when you eat a food item containing xanthan.  Considering that wheat may be used in making xanthan and that wheat also contains gluten, the substance many celiacs and those on a gluten-free diet are trying to avoid when using xanthan, there is a serious possibility of contamination.  Once the bacteria interact with the fermented sugars, the resulting compound is dried and powdered to form xanthan.

Xanthan is added to many gluten-free baked goods because the gum adds elasticity that is missing in gluten-free grains and flours.  In standard baking, gluten itself is elastic and provides the familiar texture for breads and baked goods and helps prevent these items from being crumbly.  Xanthan acts as a stand-in for gluten to provide the familiar elastic quality found in breads.

While many health experts claim that the mostly-indigestible xanthan gum is a harmless food additive, a quick Google search reveals that the internet is packed with people posting about their personal difficulties after eating this food ingredient.  And, as a nutritionist for many years, people regularly ask me if it’s safe to eat.  Some people report severe bloating, cramping, and soft stools from xanthan-containing foods. 

A couple of years ago the New York Times published a story about an infant who died after a xanthan-based thickener was added to his formula.  He suffered severe bloating and died of necrotizing colitis (NEC)—a life-threatening condition in which the bowels are severely damaged.  While there was insufficient evidence to indicate that the xanthan thickener had caused the disease and death, the Food and Drug Administration issued a cautionary statement that SimplyThick should not be used for premature infants.  Later a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that xanthan gum may be linked to a delayed onset of NEC in premature infants.

While the FDA may have issued the statement advising against the use of the xanthan-based thickener with premature infants, it recognizes xanthan as “generally-recognized as safe” or GRAS, although the government body has not assessed its safety.

In one animal study published in Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine researchers found that a diet containing 4% xanthan gum caused a 400% increase in the amount of water in the intestines as well as an increase in intestinal cell size.  Additionally, the same study found that xanthan slowed the absorption of substances in the intestines, which is disconcerting since most nutrients are absorbed via the lining of the intestinal walls into the blood stream.  The study also found that xanthan increased the number of sugars present in the intestines, which is a factor for microbial imbalances in the intestines.

But due to the FDA’s stance that xanthan is generally-recognized as safe, few human trials have ever been conducted.  An older human study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that xanthan acted as a laxative but also increased flatulence in otherwise healthy men.

Food is not the only place you’ll find xanthan lurking, it is also used in toothpastes and medications, including some sustained-release pills.

So should you eat foods containing xanthan gum?  That’s entirely up to you but until there's more scientific evidence supporting its widespread safety claims and the absence of GMOs, I’ll be keeping xanthan off the menu.

For more information, consult my book The Probiotic Promise:  Simple Steps to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out (DaCapo, 2015).

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