Xanthan Gum: Benefits, Side Effects, Uses, and Substitutes
If you’re on the ketogenic diet, then you’ve probably seen a few questionable ingredients lingering around in your gluten-free products that you weren’t sure about.
Xanthan gum is marketed as a natural emulsifier, and it’s used as an alternative to gluten in lots of so-called health food products. But is it safe to eat?
Doing a Google search on the topic might leave you confused as there is so much conflicting information out there.
For example, did you know that xanthan gum is also found in wallpaper glue? Doesn’t make you want to eat it, right?
We’ve broken down the research here so you can see all the facts for yourself. Here’s what you need to know about xanthan gum.
What Is Xanthan Gum?
In short, xanthan gum is a gluten-free food additive that acts as a natural emulsifier or thickening agent.
It even has some benefits, which we’ll get into in the next section. Many people even take xanthan gum in supplement form without even knowing it.
Xanthan gum is created by fermenting a sugar using a type of bacteria known as Xanthomonas campestris.
Once the sugar is fermented, a broth or goo-like substance is created. The sugar is then added to an alcohol molecule and it turns into a solid. Then, the mixture is dried and a powder forms. This is the same powder that is added to food products or sold at the grocery store.
When you add xanthan gum powder to a liquid, it dissolves and forms a stable solution. In other words, xanthan gum acts as a thickening agent. Gluten does the same thing, but because so many people are sensitive to gluten, xanthan gum is considered a safe alternative to cook with.
Although xanthan gum is made in a lab, it’s considered a soluble fiber, which are carbs that your body cannot break down. Soluble fiber is often used to promote digestive health and help keep you regular (3).
Because of this, your body cannot break down xanthan gum. This means that it doesn’t provide any nutrients and it’s calorie-free.
You can find xanthan gum in many products, including food products, cosmetics, and industrial products.
Here are some typical examples:
- Baked goods
- Salad dressings
- Fruit juice
- Ice cream and sherbet
- Syrups, jams, and jellies
- Fat-free or gluten-free foods
- Pudding or jello
- Creams or lotions
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides
- Adhesives such as wallpaper glue
- Gout, tile and toilet bowl cleaners
Benefits of Xanthan Gum
Despite being found in many different cosmetic and industrial products, consuming xanthan gum has some health benefits.
Lowering Blood Sugar
For example, research shows that xanthan gum may help lower blood sugar when consumed in larger doses and it may even help prevent diabetes.
This is because xanthan gum turns fluid in your small intestine and stomach into a gel-like substance. It helps slow down the digestive process. It also slows down the rate in which blood sugar enters your bloodstream and reduces your blood sugar levels after meals (4).
One study investigated the effect of xanthan gum on people with diabetes. Researchers took four men without diabetes and nine men with diabetes and had all men eat a muffin every day.
For the first six weeks, the men ate a muffin without xanthan gum, and for the next six weeks, they ate a muffin with 12 grams of xanthan gum. The men had their fasting, and after-meal blood sugar levels tested often. Results showed that the men with diabetes lowered their blood sugar levels after eating the muffins that contained xanthan gum (5).
Another study involving 11 women indicated that eating rice with xanthan gum significantly lowered blood sugar levels when compared to eating rice that did not contain xanthan gum (6).
In addition to lowering blood sugar levels, xanthan gum has been shown to:
Reduces blood cholesterol
One study found that five men who ate ten times the recommended amount of xanthan gum every day for 23 days decreased their cholesterol levels by ten percent (7).
May fight cancer
An animal study that involved mice with melanoma found that xanthan gum significantly slowed down the growth of cancerous tumors. It also prolonged the life of infected mice (8).
Aids in weight loss
Research shows that people who eat xanthan gum reportedly feel fuller after eating it than people who don’t, which leads to weight loss and reduce calorie consumption.
Xanthan gum acts as a soluble fiber in the body, which helps improve digestive health. It also increases the amount of water that flows into the intestines. The result is a softer and bulkier stool that is not as hard to pass.
Heals dry mouth
As a natural emulsifier, xanthan gum can be used to thicken liquids, which makes them easier to swallow for people who have neurological disorders or difficulty swallowing (14).
Despite having some pretty impressive health benefits, xanthan gum can also come with some gnarly side effects.
For example, research shows that using large amounts of it can cause digestive upset. Animal studies have shown that using large amounts of xanthan gum increases the frequency of stools and causes soft stools, which may result in diarrhea (15, 16).
Human studies have found that xanthan gum may include the following unwanted side effects:
- Increased intestinal gas
- Increased stool frequency
- Softer stools (diarrhea)
- Going to the bathroom more often
- Altered gut bacteria
It should be noted that these side effects were reported after people took 15 grams or more of xanthan gum, which would be hard to get through a regular diet (17).
You can avoid this amount by reading labels and eliminating foods that contain excess amounts of xanthan gum. Normally, it would be very hard to exceed this amount as you generally need a very small amount for your recipes.
Additionally, some research shows that xanthan gum’s ability to alter gut bacteria is a good thing because it acts as a prebiotic in the digestive system and enhances the growth of good bacteria (18).
What Are The Uses of Xanthan Gum?
As you can see, xanthan gum is used as a thickening and stabilizing agent in many different products that range from cosmetics to food.
For cooking purposes, most people use it in place of gluten as a binding agent in your favorite sauce and baking recipes. It can be used as a substitute for cornstarch, potato starch, arrowroot, tapioca, etc…
It can help thicken soups, sauces, and stews where gluten is commonly used, or it can be used in homemade baked good recipes (again, in place of gluten) to help bind your ingredients together. You can also use it to keep purees from separating.
The good news is that xanthan gum is very easy to use and you don’t need a lot of it. It has a very neutral flavor so most of the time you won’t even taste it in your recipes.
And since it’s virtually nutrient-less anyway, you don’t have to worry about losing nutrients when you microwave it or heat it to high temperatures.
Finally, xanthan gum mixes in well with beverages of any temperature so that you can add it to hot and cold drinks alike, and it will dissolve nicely. Be careful not to use too much as it can change the texture or consistency of your foods.
Most of the time, you’ll only need a half a teaspoon or so to thicken up a few cups of your favorite sauces or stews.
Alternatives To Xanthan Gum
Although the FDA claims that xanthan gum is a pretty harmless thing to use in your foods, we understand that some people don’t want to eat something that is also found in toothpaste. If you want to side step xanthan gum but still keep with your gluten-free lifestyle, then you have a couple of different options.
Guar gum is a fiber extracted from guar beans that is used as a stabilizer, emulsifier to thicken the texture of gluten-free products. You can buy it from the grocery store just like xanthan gum and other gluten-free products.
Because of its high fiber content, guar gum may support your digestive health and bowel movement (19).
Gelatin is a protein that is made by boiling the skin, ligaments or bones of pigs and cows in water. It’s closely related to collagen and provides a good source of amino acids.
Research shows that gelatin has also been shown to improve digestion, prevent leaky gut syndrome, prevent joint pain, improve your quality of sleep, boost your brain power, improve skin health, keep your heart strong, give you healthy bones, and help you lose weight by keeping you full (24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31).
Many people like to use gelatin in place of xanthan gum to thicken their recipes because it’s a natural and keto-friendly ingredient.
If you’re on the ketogenic diet, then you’re probably not worried about eating gelatin because it’s derived from animal sources. But if you’re vegetarian, then you can use agar agar as a plant-based alternative to gelatin.
Just like xanthan gum, agar agar is flavorless and mixes well with water.
Psyllium husk seeds
Psyllium is a type of fiber that is extracted from the husks of the Plantago ovata plant.
It’s a bulk-forming laxative, so it helps promote healthy digestion, but you’ll want to be careful with the amounts you’re using.
Fiber makes an excellent substitute for gluten because it’s sticky in water, so it helps bind your food together without the inflammatory effects of gluten.
Research shows that you can improve the baking characteristics of bread by adding 5 percent of psyllium husk to the recipe (36).
And because it’s made mostly of fiber, psyllium husks won’t contribute to your net carbs. Use it in powder form wherever you would use xanthan gum.
Flaxseeds are a great source of omega 3 fatty acids and fiber. They also become sticky when you use them in recipes (and mix them with water), so you can use it as a natural emulsifier.
Use flaxseed meal in place of xanthan gum in your keto recipes.
Chia seeds are similar to psyllium because they become gelatinized pretty quickly when you mix them in water.
They also contain a large amount of soluble fiber, so you can use them to promote digestive health and help keep blood sugar levels down. This is because fiber slows down the rate in which glucose is dumped into your blood.
It’s a much better alternative to gluten in recipes. In fact, many vegans use a ratio of chia seeds and water in place of eggs as a binding agent in recipes because it becomes nice and sticky, allowing your ingredients to bind together.
If you’re following the ketogenic diet, then you can use chia seeds in place of xanthan gum in some recipes, especially in smoothies and drinks.
Xanthan gum is a natural emulsifier that also happens to be gluten-free. For this reason, many people use it in their cooking, but they aren’t thrilled to find that xanthan gum is also used in other products, such as cosmetics and industrial products.
Although the FDA has deemed small amounts of xantham gum to be harmless, you’ll want to make sure you don’t use too much in your baking as it can cause digestive upset.
The good news is that xanthan gum has some proven health benefits, including lowering your blood sugar levels. It’s also calorie-free (unlike gluten).
If you’re not thrilled about the idea of cooking with something that’s also found in wallpaper glue, then you can use psyllium husks, guar gum, chia seeds, flaxseeds, gelatin or agar agar in its place.
The bottom line is if you’re using xanthan gum in small amounts or notice it in some of your favorite health food products, then you probably have nothing to worry about and can continue to use it in small quantities.