Xanthan and Guar Gum Are in Everything: Are They Bad for You?
Food gums are in everything you add to your supermarket cart, but when you see them on the label, it might make you think, What the yuck? These additives are hard to avoid, even if you’re eating a plant-based diet and avoiding preservatives. Whether you should stay away from additives like gums is a question of personal health, according to the experts we spoke with. Here's what you need to know.
Food gums are so ubiquitous in the food system that they’re hard to escape. Just take a peek at the foods in your kitchen, and you’ll no doubt find gums on nearly every label in your kitchen cabinet, under the names xanthan gum, guar gum, locust bean, gellan gum, and tara gum. (Carrageenan is another food gum that can cause inflammation, but since The Beet covered carrageenan, we decided to focus on other gums.)
Unlike other added ingredients such as sodium and added sugar, nobody is waving a red flag about food gums. While they do serve a purpose, which is as a thickening and binding agent, the question is whether you should be avoiding these highly processed ingredients. We went to nutrition pros to get their take on this topic.
What are food gums, and are they bad for you?
Food gums are additives that originate from things that sound innocent enough. For instance, guar gum is a product of ground-up guar beans, which is related to the pea plant, says Isabel Smith, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., a dietitian in New York City and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition. Meanwhile, locust bean comes from the carob seeds of the carob tree, tara is derived from a legume, and xanthan and guar are actually made from bacterial fermentation.
Once you start looking for these gums, you’ll find them in an endless list of products, including many that are plant-based. For instance, non-dairy milks, yogurts, ice creams, as well as bread, cereals, salad dressings, crackers, candies, and protein powders all contain food gums.
So why do manufacturers add them to food? Gums serve multiple purposes, which is why they are used so frequently. “They’re used for thickening, stability and texture,” Smith says. “Gums also help prevent oil and water mixtures in foods from separating.”
They even help stabilize flavors, says Marty Davey, M.S., R.D., a plant-based dietitian in New York City. That vegan mayonnaise you swear by? Food gums help it keep its flavor.
But that’s not all. Food manufacturers also rely on these products because they save companies time and money. “They provide a shortcut for the R&D team to get a product on the market faster, and artificial ingredients, like food gums, are cheaper than real ingredients,” says Helena Lumme, founder and chair of the Board of Hälsa Foods, which doesn’t use a single artificial ingredient in its products.
Do food gums have any health benefits?
While food gums add certain properties to food, the question is whether they add any health benefits. Short answer: Not really. Are they harmful? That depends on your health goals.
Because many of these food gums originate from plants, they obviously contain fiber. And while Americans as a whole need to eat more fiber, food gums aren’t the best source. “I wouldn’t seek them out for fiber,” Smith says. Better sources of fiber include whole plant foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes, which also come with an array of other health-boosting nutrients.
Surprisingly, though, there is some evidence suggesting that xanthan gum can lower cholesterol and blood sugar. “If you’re having a teaspoon a day, it will create a gel-like substance in the gut that could block glucose and cholesterol uptake,” Davey says. Because xanthan makes a gel-like substance similar to chia seeds, it may also aid weight management by making you feel full longer. But a teaspoon is a lot of xanthan gum to consume. Davey notes that in recipes that are big enough to feed six to 12 people, she hasn’t used more than a teaspoon’s worth of xanthan gum, so the amount in a serving is a fraction of a teaspoon.
Why some individuals should avoid or minimize food gums in their diet
As common as food gums are, some individuals don’t tolerate them well and should avoid or limit their use of them, Smith says. For anybody with gastrointestinal issues, histamine intolerance or mast cell activation syndrome (allergies), less is better. Otherwise, you could experience gas, bloating, diarrhea or histamine intolerance symptoms for somebody with HIT.
Lumare also argues that human bodies aren’t designed to digest chemicals, even those derived from plants. “As the use of food chemicals has exploded in the United States, the rate of obesity, allergies, gastrointestinal ailments like IB has exploded as well and even colorectal cancer is on the rise,” she says, noting that food gums were originally invented by chemical companies and later adopted by the food industry.
Xanthan gum, for instance, was invented as a binder for toilet bowl cleaners and other household products. “All food additives, including food gums, destroy the good bacteria in your gut, weaken your immune response, and put your body at greater risk of inflammation.”
But is it okay to eat small amounts of food gums in your processed food?
This may depend on your definition of “okay.” These food gums are highly processed, which will obviously be a deterrent if you want your food choices to be nutritious and bolster your health.
Yet eating a small amount of food gums, (carrageenan being the exception), doesn’t worry most nutrition pros. “The amount you get of these gums from a product is minimal,” says Davey, explaining why she doesn’t have a problem if you’re eating them in store-bought food or adding them to your cooking.
Just remember, though, that the more you focus on eating foods as close to how they came out of the ground, the fewer added ingredients such as food gums you’ll consume, Davey says. And because eating more whole plant foods leads to a lower risk of disease and better health, eating whole plant-based foods (and not packaged ones) a healthier move in general.
So instead of chowing down on a processed veggie burger prepare a nutrient-dense salad with veggies, beans, nuts and seeds and if you must, drizzle a homemade dressing instead of one that is store-bought and made with guar gum on the top. In this case, less definitely adds up to more in terms of health.
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