I recently came across an article in defense of food science. The misunderstanding and mistrust of our food and the food industry have led to some unnecessary changes to please consumers. While change is always needed, especially as research advances and new information is uncovered, sometimes the answer lies in education. Take a look at the article by the Wall Street Journal and you’ll find 1 in 10 believe dihydrogen monoxide should be removed from food. That means 10% of Americans believe water should not be allowed in food!
Certainly, the food industry should help people understand more about their food and the function of each ingredient. Hopefully, this series can help explain some of the mysteries behind the label.
What exactly is it?
Xanthan gum is an ingredient found in a wide variety of foods that many avoid, but may not know exactly why. Some have even demanded companies remove it completely from their products. At the same time, consumers demand natural ingredients they can pronounce.
Xantham gum is a hydrocolloid and natural biogum. Hydrocolloid is a technical term for a polysaccharide that is soluble in water and forms a gel. Still confused? A saccharide is a sugar. Poly means many, so polysaccharide literally means “many sugars”. Starches are polysaccharides; so is fiber.
Photo Source: Bob’s Red Mill
Where does it come from?
There are many sources of biogums, including plants, seeds, seaweed, cellulose, and those produced from microorganisms. These, of course, are natural sources. Xanthan gum is a microbial gum produced from Xanthomonas campestris. (Remember the majority of bacteria are actually helpful! Think: gut bacteria or fermentation). These bacteria ferment sugars to produce polysaccharides that are made into xanthan gum.
Where can I find it?
Xanthan gum can be used in a wide variety of foods. Popular applications include salad dressings, chocolate milk, baked goods, frozen foods, icings, desserts, fillings, pudding, and beverages.
Many gluten-free products also rely on xanthan gum for texture. Without the use of gluten, we know that bread and baked products do not have structure or rise. The xanthan gum acts to bind the flour proteins and provide elasticity and moisture. You can find xanthan gum in the baking aisle if you are interested in trying it at home!
Why is it important as a food ingredient?
Xanthan gum is so effective in thickening and stabilizing foods, it is the most widely used hydrocolloid. It’s defining characteristic? It is a pseudoplastic or shear-thinning liquid. This means when xanthan gum is dissolved in solution it becomes thinner as it is mixed. It can also thicken in the absence of shear (mixing). This is critical when you think of the different applications of the biogum from suspensions to emulsions to foams. Other hydrocolloids are not as stable across such a wide variety of environments.
Other important attributes:
- pH stable
- temperature stable
- salt tolerance
- enzyme stability
- thickens rapidly at low concentrations
These characteristics are very important in the development of food products. Foods are dynamic and living. They require heat processing for safety and edibility. They naturally have different intrinsic properties, such as the amount of acid, salt, or enzymes.
It is also used at low levels in formulating products. It only takes 0.05-0.50% xanthan gum to thicken a product!
Is it safe?
Xanthan gum is approved for use as a direct food additive by the FDA. A direct food additive is one that is added for an intentional purpose in food. It has been in use since 1969 and was required to be proven safe before use. In toxicological studies, no negative effects were reported and no carcinogenicity was found.
Xanthan gum is a dietary fiber and passes through your intestines mostly unabsorbed. It has also been shown to reduce blood sugar.
There is evidence some may react to xanthan gum in the form of a food allergy, depending on the fermentation source.
Xanthan gum is a thickening agent produced by bacteria. It is found in many foods because it is highly stable across a wide variety of food environments. It is also useful in improving the texture of gluten-free products. It is approved for use by the FDA and has been shown to be safe.
I encourage you to take a look at the article for a different perspective on food! Check back soon the learn more about mono- and diglycerides!
Bob’s Red Mill. Xanthan Gum. https://www.bobsredmill.com/xanthan-gum.html (photo)
Gasparo A. 2018. Anyone for diglycerides? Anyone? Food scientists are getting fed up with picky eaters. Wall Street Journal. [accessed Oct 19 2018]. https://www.wsj.com/articles/emulsify-this-food-scientists-are-getting-fed-up-with-picky-consumers-1539352923
Gross, Akiva. 2014. Hydrocolloid functionality. Food Ingredient Technology Course. Purdue University. 11 Mar 2014. PowerPoint Presentation
Igoe, RS. 2011. Dictionary of Food Ingredients Fifth Edition. Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. New York, NY.
Rimmer, A. 2015. Xanthan gum: The gluten-free baker’s secret weapon. King Arthur Flour Flourish Blog. [accessed Oct 19, 2018]. https://blog.kingarthurflour.com/2015/08/05/xanthan-gum/
USDA National Organic Program. 2016. Technical Evaluation Report: Xanthan gum. Agricultural Marketing Service USDA. [accessed Oct 19, 2018]. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/TRXanthanGumHandling042216.pdf