Harmful or Harmless: Xanthan Gum | Chris Kresser

Harmful or Harmless: Xanthan Gum

by Chris Kresser

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I hope everyone had a wonderful and delicious Thanksgiving! Today, I’m continuing my series on common food additives.

Last time, I discussed the health effects of carrageenan, a food additive that is commonly used as a stabilizer, thickener, or emulsifier. Another additive that shares many of these functions in commercial foods is xanthan gum, which is also popular in gluten-free baked goods for the elasticity it lends to dough.

Although it isn’t as heavily discussed in the blogosphere as the other additives I’ve covered thus far, many health-conscious people see it on ingredient lists and wonder what it is, and whether they should be eating it. In this article, I’ll do my best to answer those questions.

Should you avoid xanthan gum in gluten-free baked goods? Find out in this article.Tweet This

Xanthan gum is a largely indigestible polysaccharide that is produced by bacteria called Xanthomonas Camestris. (1) Manufacturers place the bacteria in a growth medium that contains sugars and other nutrients, and the resulting product of bacterial fermentation is purified, dried, powdered, and sold as xanthan gum. (Makes you wonder who first thought to put it in food, doesn’t it?)

Animal studies

Overall, the results from animal studies on xanthan gum aren’t very concerning. In one experiment, rats were fed xanthan gum for two years in concentrations of 0.25, 0.50 or 1.0 g/kg body weight per day. (2) The only notable difference between the xanthan gum groups and the control group was that rats fed xanthan gum experienced soft stools somewhat more frequently than the control rats, but even that barely reached statistical significance. There were no differences in growth rate, survival, blood markers, organ weights or tumor incidence.

Another experiment followed a similar design but used dogs instead of rats, and the results were the same: no changes other than occasional soft stools. (3) In a three-generation reproductive study, rats were fed either 0.25 or 0.50 g/kg per day, and there were no significant changes in the parents and offspring from the xanthan gum-receiving groups. (4)

Based on those initial studies, it was concluded that xanthan gum is a perfectly safe food additive. Since then, a few additional animal studies with different aims have been published.

One study, conducted to evaluate the effects of xanthan gum on digestion in rats, found that a diet containing 4% xanthan gum increased the amount of water in the intestines by 400%, and also increased the number of sugars remaining in the intestine. (5) Another study found that in rats fed 50 g/kg of xanthan gum (an incredibly high dose) for 4 weeks, the stool water content and short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) content increased significantly. (6)

This last study actually relates to the potential anti-tumor properties of xanthan gum, and researchers found that orally administered xanthan gum was able to slow tumor growth and prolong the survival of mice with melanoma. (7) The mechanism is unclear, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Human studies

Due to the lack of harmful effects observed in animal studies, there are few human studies on xanthan gum. The first study aimed to determine the safety of xanthan gum when consumed by humans in an everyday dietary setting, but at levels much higher than people would normally encounter in their diet. (8) For 23 days, 5 adult men with no GI issues consumed between 10.4g and 12.9g of xanthan gum daily (based on the subjects’ weight), which is 15 times the current Acceptable Daily Intake of 10mg/kg. Overall, they experienced a reduction in serum cholesterol, an increase in fecal bile acid, and an increase in stool output and water content.

Another study had volunteers consume 15g of xanthan gum per day for 10 days. (9) They found xanthan gum to be a “highly efficient laxative,” and subjects experienced greater stool output and gas. That’s not very surprising considering the high dose, but what I found particularly interesting about this study was their measurement of the ability of subjects’ fecal bacteria to metabolize xanthan gum.

The researchers found that before the trial period, bacteria from the stools of only 12 of the 18 subjects could break down the xanthan gum, while after the trial period, bacteria from 16 of the subjects could break it down. (10) Additionally, the stool samples containing bacteria that could break down the xanthan gum showed a much greater production of hydrogen gas and SCFA after the trial period as compared to baseline, indicating that the intestinal bacteria of the subjects quickly adapted to this new food source. Clearly, xanthan gum (like many indigestible carbohydrates) can have a profound impact on the gut microbiota in large doses.

Colitis in infants

The only concerning research I found on xanthan gum relates to the development of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) in infants. Earlier this year, the New York Times published an article relating the tragic deaths of infants who had developed NEC after consuming a diet of formula or breast milk that had been thickened with a xanthan gum-based product called SimplyThick. This product was widely used in hospitals to thicken feed for infants with swallowing difficulties.

Two papers reviewed the cases of xanthan gum-associated NEC, and while there isn’t enough data to establish causation, the general consensus seems to be that the xanthan gum caused increased bacterial production of SCFA in the newborns’ intestines, and this contributed to the development of NEC. (11, 12) Although SCFA are vital to colon health, the immature digestive systems of newborns appear to be extremely sensitive to them. (13, 14) Since then, general practice guidelines suggest avoiding manufactured thickening products in babies under 12 months old, and rice cereal or baby oatmeal is used instead.

I wanted to address this because while it’s clearly important to avoid giving xanthan gum to infants (especially in large amounts), I’d like to emphasize that none of this changes the fact that xanthan gum appears to be relatively harmless in adult humans. None of the animal or human studies found damage to the intestinal mucosa following xanthan gum consumption, even in large doses, so this danger appears to be unique to newborns. For everyone else, SCFA aren’t something to be afraid of, and they are actually beneficial for the gut and for metabolic health, as I mention in previous articles here and here.

Wheat, corn, soy, and dairy allergies

I mentioned in the opening section that xanthan gum is produced by bacterial fermentation of a sugar-containing medium. Unfortunately, that ‘medium’ is often a potentially allergenic substance such as corn, soy, dairy, or wheat. Many xanthan gum manufacturers aren’t eager to share what their ‘medium’ is, but one common supplier, Bob’s Red Mill, discloses their production practices.

It looks like they originally used corn or soy as a medium, but they’ve since changed their medium to a glucose solution derived from wheat starch. However, they claim that the xanthan gum is still gluten-free, and it continues to be marketed as such.

It can be difficult to find production info online, but just be aware that if you have a severe allergy to corn, soy, wheat, or dairy, it would be prudent to either avoid xanthan gum entirely or check with the manufacturer to see how it’s produced.

Conclusion

Based on the available evidence, the worst xanthan gum seems to be capable of (in adults) is causing some digestive distress in those who are susceptible by increasing stool bulk, water content, and sugar content. But as I just mentioned, those with severe allergies should also be careful.

I recommend that people with digestive problems generally avoid xanthan gum, not because there’s evidence that it could damage your gut, but because its structural properties make it likely to produce unpleasant gut symptoms. Unlike carrageenan, there’s no evidence that xanthan gum can cause serious harm (even in human studies using doses much higher than people would normally encounter), so if you are able to tolerate it, I see no compelling reason to strictly avoid it. I wouldn’t recommend consuming large amounts every day, because xanthan gum appears to have a high propensity for altering the gut microbiome, and it’s unclear whether that alteration could be problematic in the long run. But the small amounts that you would normally encounter in the context of a real-food diet shouldn’t present a problem.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Have you ever experienced any unpleasant side effects from using xanthan gum? Have I allayed your fears about this additive? Let me know in the comments below.

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  1. Here’s something I read from Catcentric:

    Xanthan gum is a thickener and emulsifier used in many pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial applications, and processed human and pet foods. Although its use is approved by the FDA, Xanthan gum was identified in 2011 as the cause of a deadly form of colitis responsible for several infant illnesses and deaths. As reported by the New York Times, the President of the company that makes the product in question (SimplyThick) claimed, “There was no need to conduct studies (for use of the product in infant formula), as the use of thickeners overall was already well established. In addition, the safety of xanthan gum was already well established.” (1)

    That’s what they tell us about its use in cat foods too.

    Marketed as an “all natural” ingredient in gluten-free recipes (2) xanthan gum is actually “the first of a new generation of polysaccharides [fibers] produced by biotechnology. The polymer was discovered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).” The laboratory-produced gum “appeared to have valuable properties that would allow it to compete with natural gums.” (3) The commercial production of Xanthan gum began in the U.S. in 1969. It is produced by the fermentation of glucose, sucrose, or lactose (derived from corn, soy, wheat or whey) with the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris. X. campestris is the same bacteria responsible for causing black rot to form on broccoli, cauliflower, and other leafy vegetable bles. The bacteria forms a slimy substance that acts as a stabilizer and thickener, an emulsifier, and a surface-active agent. (3) After a fermentation period of several days, it is heat treated to inactivate the organism: the gum is isolated from the bulk medium by precipitation with either isopropyl alcohol or ethanol (highly toxic carcinogens according to the American Cancer Society (5)). It is then dried, milled, sieved and packaged.

    In other words, xanthan gum is a laboratory creation. It is a product:

    – fermented on potential allergens
    – when fermented on corn or soy (as it often is), GMO concerns exist
    – cannot be manufactured without the use of toxic carcinogens

    Xanthan gum is a “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) food additive in the US, Canada, Europe, and many other countries. Yet it is known to be potentially as irritating as gluten for some with Celiac disease, causing gas, bloat and diarrhea (4); and for causing flare-ups for those with Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis (inflammatory bowel disease). In fact, “the rapid increase in the incidence and prevalence of IBD in recent decades strongly suggests an environmental trigger for IBD, one of which may be dietary patterns. There are several pathways where diet may influence intestinal inflammation, such as direct dietary antigens, altering the gut microbiome, and affecting gastrointestinal permeability. (6) A review article, “Evidence-based dietary advice for patients with inflammatory bowel disease” indicates that emulsifiers in processed foods have been indicated in Crohn’s disease. (7)

    At this point, it almost doesn’t seem surprising that something went wrong with this food additive “generally recognized as safe” in the sensitive intestines of premature infants. However, with the rare but tragic loss of life, we are left wondering – what happened? According to the New York Times article, the FDA investigators reporting on the deaths theorized that the infants’ intestinal membranes could have been damaged by bacteria breaking down the xanthan gum into “too many toxic byproducts,” as the intestines of premature infants are “far more likely” to have bacterial overgrowth than adults.

    Whether or not xanthan gum is contributing to the development of IBD in cats, one thing is clear: with the established link between bacterial overgrowth and IBD (including Feline IBD (8)), cats with inflammatory bowel disease should not be eating xanthan gum.

    Frankly, with digestive issues ranking as one of the top two reasons for a vet visit seven out of the last nine years, according to VPI Insurance, it’s probably a good bet no cat should be eating this.

    I would avoid this ingredient. Article states it’s always made using toxic carcinogens. I don’t even chew gum anymore. Why risk making ourselves unnecessarily sick?

    • For important health purposes, when making a cake, using eggs that come from chickens is better, and are also mandatory to include in the diet frequently.

  2. Xanthan gum makes me so sick. I can instantly tell when I have ingested it as I will spend the next 2 days in the fetal position. Worst stomach pain ever, bloating, bathroom trips, it is awful. I am extremely careful with reading all the labels of things now, and asking many questions when we go out to eat.

    • This isn’t particularly relevant because of the many non-harmful and also the many beneficial things that cause a human to experience discomfort. For example sugar which has no harmful effects by itself when not hugely massively consumed but which will definitely cause bad feeling when used a lot just once, and kombucha which may cause tiredness and other bad feeling yet is highly beneficial to your body. Your personal experiences are irrelevant to the safety of an item which has already been specifically stated to perhaps cause such symptoms, unless it is an actual medical problem and condition.

  3. After reading Steven Gundry’s book The Plant Paradox, I began eating the Siete brand of almond-tapioca flour tortillas, They contain xanthum gum. Within hours of eating the tortillas I got severe dazed flu-like symptoms. I have been gluten intolerant my whole life, always wheat and rye allergic as well, and wonder if perhaps the Siete almond tortillas’ xanthum gum is made from a wheat-based medium. I eliminated the tortillas for a few weeks and experienced the exact same symptoms when I reintroduced them. Flu-like symptoms and deep sweats like working through a fever, soreness in my abdomen. I am a health practitioner and have spent 32 years studying food as medicine and fuel and really appreciate Chris’ comments about this. Thank you, Chris.

  4. Hello,

    I am completing the 30 reset programme and I accidentally made soup with stock that contained carrageenan. This has caused me digestive problems etc. I also can not tolerate Xanthium gum, gluten, diary etc or any additives in food. I plan to continue to eat Paleo as I just feel better, not because it is a fad. Its not easy to change eating habits but after 30 years of digestive trouble its worth it to me.

  5. I cant eat it at all. It bloats me something fierce and within ten minutes I’ll be exhausted. The effects lasts for days depending on the amount consumed.
    I have IBS and I’m wheat/lactose intolerant with cow’s milk allergies.

  6. I was recently tested for food sensitivities (Meridian), and xanthan gum (126 on the reference range) should a moderate sensitivity. It seems to be in so many products. I have to be gluten free because of Hashimoto’s. Xanthan gum is in many gluten free foods. Should I avoid those products? I like Bob’s Mills gluten free cornbread, but it contains xanthan gum. Please advise! Thank you!!
    Joan

    • It is really easy to make your own baking mix and it works well for many recipes( I have not found a good way to make raised bread for sandwiches) it works well for dessert breads, pie crust , cookies and so on. 1 c sweet rice flour, 1 c millet flour, 1/2 c tapioca flour and 1/2 c finely ground almond meal–sift together. YOu could mix up larger quantities and keep refrigerated or in freezer. You could sub cornmeal for the millet or use corn meal in addition to the flour mix. You can also sub part quinuoa or amaranth flour for a bit more protein content–though not as good in desserts. the only reason to use xanthum gum is it helps it to stick together –eggs will help it stick together in most recipes. Or if allergic to eggs for part of the liquid use dissolved flax seed.

    • Moderate sensitivity to xanthan gum may very well mean you should not eat it. Or it may not bother you that much. Everybody’s different. You may very well get a greater sensitivity over time when eating it. The only true way to really know how it affects you is to eat something with it and see what happens. That’s the real teller for me. Once I saw what it did every time I ate it, and when I unknowingly ate it, but found out after the fact, I KNEW I didn’t want any more. It hurts TOO BAD.

      • Hi, Amy,
        Thank you for your reply. I was eating corn bread from Bob’s Mills corn bread mix and didn’t notice any obvious problem from the xanthan gum in it. I have another corn bread mix so I think I’ll try it again after consulting my doctor and nutritionist. I will be seeing my nutritionist again because I need more ideas for breakfast items I can eat since I have so many food sensitivities right now, and I’m not a smoothies person. If I get a physical reaction, I guess I’ll know that the xanthan gum might be causing the problem. The ingredient is in other products as well- not just in food! I found it in my face moisturizer with sunscreen (Eucerin) and Colgate Enamel Health toothpaste. It is in numerous gluten free food products. I wonder if it is harmful, absorbed into the skin or used on the teeth? We all have to check ingredients carefully. Since so many people become ill after eating xanthan gum, I’m surprised it is still an ingredient in many products!
        Joan

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