Everything You Need to Know About the Ubiquitous Additive Xanthan Gum
We first noticed xanthan gum in our favorite gluten-free flour mix. And then we started noticing it everywhere: salad dressings, ice creams, sauces, gluten-free baking recipes, you name it. So we asked ourselves, what the heck is xanthan gum? Is it even healthy!?
To get to the bottom line, we reached out to chef and nutritionist Michelle Berckes, owner of Jersey City, New Jersey’s gluten-free cafe, Busy Bee Organics.
What is Xanthan Gum, Exactly?
Xanthan Gum is an additive that is often used for thickening and stabilizing food. The fine white powder can be used in myriad ways, but most commonly in gluten-free baked goods, dressings, and sauces.
So, where does it come from?
In short: bacteria.
“Sometimes in cooking we use microorganisms for assistance,” Berckes says, like yeast does for bread or the probiotic does for kombucha. “Similarly, xanthan gum is actually derived from a bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris. Once fed sugar, this bacteria will grow and produce an outer protective layer that is sticky and can be used as a binding and thickening agent.”
That sugar is usually derived from corn, soy or wheat. After the bacteria has fermented on the sugar and produced that sticky, gel-like layer, manufacturers will dry and mill it.
How Does Xanthan Gum Work in Gluten-Free Baking?
Xantan gum is invaluable to gluten-free baking, and does things that rising agents such as baking powder and baking soda alone simply cannot. “Xanthan gum is great in gluten-free baking because it helps texturize gluten-free products to feel more like gluten,” Berckes says. “It does this by trapping any air bubble gaps that can happen when using rising agents.”
Mystery solved! It makes most gluten-free baked goods more “doughy” or chewy. It’s not a *perfect* replacement for gluten, but it can get you pretty damn close. It’s what helps gluten-free bread become a reality.
With xanthan gum, a little goes a long way. Typically, you only need about 1/4 teaspoon to 2 teaspoons of it for every 1 cup of flour. Follow your recipe’s specifications to eliminate guesswork, if you aren’t using a baking blend that includes this ingredient, or if you’re putting together your own blend.
Is xantan gum healthy?
Unlike other additives that have been linked to illness, xanthan gum remains harmless. A recent study reported no safety issues with the use of xanthan gum in adults.
However, safety and health are two different things. After speaking with Berckes, our takeaway is that xanthan gum isn’t exactly unhealthy, but it might not be the most health-supportive ingredient.
“If you are someone who does not tolerate soy, wheat, or corn well, it probably would not be your go-to, as it will leave you bloated and gassy or otherwise symptomatic,” Berckes says. “If you don’t mind the fact that it is a microorganism and you don’t mind the bacteria’s aforementioned food source, it can work quite well in baking, etc. Always listen to your body when deciding if any food is right for you.”
For those who may have sensitivities to this ingredient, don’t like the high cost, or are looking for more health-supportive ingredients, there are other ways to go. Berckes recommends trying psyllium seed husk, ground flaxseed, and chia seeds. Her cafe creates delectable gluten-free baked goods, but without xanthan gum. Instead, baked goods and sauces get what they need from nutrient-dense foods, like fresh mashed fruits and vegetables. (Think banana, applesauce, squash, and so forth). Berckes also uses omega-3 rich flax meal, chia seeds, and arrowroot.