What is xanthan gum?
Widely used in both food and household goods, xanthan gum is a natural vegetarian ingredient, but what exactly is it and is it good for you? Registered nutritionist Kerry Torrens explains.
What is xanthan gum?
An additive used as a thickener, stabiliser and emulsifier, xanthan gum is made when strains of the Xanthomonas campestris bacteria are fed a solution of glucose that's been derived from corn, soy, dairy or wheat. The bacteria ferments the sugary solution, and as a result develops a sticky protective coat that has a consistency that makes it suitable for binding and thickening. It's these properties that make xanthan gum useful in food production – most notably in gluten-free baking, where it helps starches combine and improves the texture, rise and shelf-life of gluten-free bakes.
Xanthan gum is also used in numerous household products, from wallpaper paste to cosmetics.
What is xanthan gum used for?
Xanthan gum is used in food production to improve the texture, consistency and shelf-life of foods such as salad dressings, soups, sauces and baked goods.
It is particularly useful for those with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity who must follow a gluten-free diet. This is because gluten-free substitutes for wheat flour need additives like xanthan gum to achieve a product that resembles the texture, crumb and lightness of regular bakes. Xanthan gum does this by thickening and binding starches to help trap air and mimic the elastic properties of gluten. It is purchased in powder form and dissolves easily in water.
Xanthan gum is not just found in the kitchen, however – you’ll also find it in your bathroom cabinet. Items like toothpaste, face creams, shampoos and body lotions may all contain xanthan gum. It helps emulsify and thicken these products, making them more visually appealing and easier to squeeze out or pour.
Are there any health benefits of xanthan gum?
When eaten at reasonably high levels, xanthan gum may have some influence on your gut and the speed of digestive transit. This is because xanthan gum binds with water and swells once eaten; this increases the levels of fluid in the intestine and stimulates the movement of food in the gut, promoting softer, bulkier stools and potentially relieving constipation.
Xanthan gum is also a soluble fibre that acts as ‘fuel’ for the beneficial bacteria that reside in your gut. These bacteria are important not just for the health of your gut, but for your wider health and well-being, too.
There are also some suggestions that foods containing xanthan gum (again at high levels) may slow the absorption of sugar from the digestive tract and improve satiety. These findings are also seen when xanthan gum is added to a carb-rich side dish such as rice, where it lowers the overall Glycaemic Index (GI) of the dish.
Similarly, when consumed at sufficient doses, xanthan gum may have a moderate effect on cholesterol levels, with potentially a 10% reduction.
What are the side effects of xanthan gum?
Xanthan gum may have a laxative effect when consumed consistently and in large enough quantities, typically in excess of 15g per day. It may also cause side effects, such as flatulence and bloating.
Is xanthan gum safe for everyone?
Xanthan gum is an approved food additive (E415) and is considered safe for the general population, including infants (over the age of 12 weeks) and young children when consumed at levels used by the food industry.
That said, because xanthan gum may be made from one of a number of common allergens, such as wheat, corn, soy or dairy, you may need to avoid it if you have an allergy to one or more of these foods.
If you are on prescribed medication for diabetes or due to have surgery, you should be aware that xanthan gum has a blood sugar lowering effect and large doses should be avoided. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that most foods contain xanthan gum at very low levels. For example, as a food additive, it typically makes up just 0.05-0.3% of a food product.
Speak to your GP or healthcare provider if you’re concerned about an allergy.
This article was reviewed on 13 April 2022 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Follow Kerry on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_