Harmful or Harmless: Xanthan Gum | Chris Kresser

Harmful or Harmless: Xanthan Gum

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Gluten-free baked goods often contain xanthan gum. diego_cervo/istock/thinkstock

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.

456 Comments

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    • Why should that matter? GMO has no more effect on an organism than hybridization and you eat highly hybridized food items every single day.

  1. I was wondering why my tummy starting acting up again after I ate the gluten free bread made with xanthan gum!

  2. I found that every time I eat Canyon Bakehouse gluten free bread with xanthan gum, I get low back pressure, pain in the area of the ovaries, and hips, and loose stools. It is so painful, that I would say that it is a grossly underestimated toxin and should be avoided at all cost. I am a empathic ayurvedic naturopath and I can say that my body will tell me immediately if things are not body friendly.

    • I keep a constant feeling of cramping & pressure in my pelvic area. It gets worse if I accidentally ingest gluten or Xanthan gum. I’m reading labels like a detective because SUDDENLY, Xanthan gum had been added to my “safe” foods and I keep getting sick because I wasn’t expecting it.

  3. OK, my research and experiments are really paying off. Gums have no value at all, not even worth experimenting with. Using Flaxseed, Chia seed and Psyllium solves the problem to keep any and all my bread recepies together. I do not substitute wheat and gluten with starches; they are even worse (check the Glycemic Index) unless you have celiac. My “bread” does not taste anything as good as a great Parisian baquettes, but for me, the trade off of taste vs. optimal health is worth it – they taste good enough, specially with creative use of spices in cooking the meal itself. It boils down to individual choice. I understand that we need to watch the quantity of flaxseed; it is a source of plant based estrogen, so I mix 50-50% with chia seed. Nobody in my family has any medical issues, but in my opinion, it is best to take the best preventive lifestyle measures BEFORE it becomes an issue. It is the same as waiting to quit smoking until one gets lung cancer. That’s my two cents worth.

  4. Check out what Dr. Andrew Weil has to say about ALL the gum thickeners. His warnings, encouraged our health-oriented community to back away from anything processed, (even if labeled organic), keep it simple, begin making our own nut milks, etc. Though we are all impacted by our toxic environment, and affected by the corporate food industry attempting to deceive, we CAN control some of the negative health consequences, by taking responsibility for what we put in our mouths. For ourselves, and the next generations, we’re called to be conscious and aware. All the best to ALL of you who are holding fast to the commitment to live healthy, and encourage others to do their best.

    • Thanks flower, good words of encouragement. I am so glad I’m not the only one doing my research and reaching out for help. I tend to get discouraged as there are some people around who seem to be able to eat anything without wondering what’s in it and I feel like the crazy paranoid lady saying oh you didn’t know that was a known carcinogenic? Etc.
      It’s nice to know I’m not alone in the fight to take the responsibility out of government and into my own hands.

  5. Chris can you please address the ingredients in the BioK probiotic yogurt? I am on the Soy one as I am dairy allergic and also gluten allergic to add to my digestive problems. Trying to help myself by eating a good probiotic…
    water, evap cane juice, soy protein isolate, active l. acidoph and l. case, nute yeast, natural mango flavour, calcium citrate, pectin. Kindly please help!

  6. My daughter is coeliac and therefore been on a strict gluten free diet for the past 3 1/2 years. Almost all gluten free products especially breads contain Xanthan gum… within 6 months of being on gluten free diet she started to have digestive problems (something that ironically she didn’t have prior to her diagnosis). I’m desperately trying to find out what is the cause…consultants / doctors just say – “IBS as well as coeliac have some anti-depressants ” life is tough at the moment

    • Hi Claire, Chris must be busy, or afraid of lawsuits. Here’s an article from a psychiatrist on the overuse of anti-depressants.
      http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/01/16/dr-brogan-on-depression.aspx
      There is a theory that depression associated with celiac may be a result of malnutrition, and that nutrients like folic acid and B6 can successfully address this deficiency.
      http://celiacdisease.about.com/od/symptomsofceliacdisease/a/Gluten-And-Depression.htm
      A good clean real food diet with lots of vegetables, juicing, slippery elm for sore gut days, and a gradual re-introduction of soy free poultry,eggs, and wild fish have helped me to recover my gastrointestinal health. And exercise, whether it’s as simple as a walk, yoga, Taichi Shibashi, or a bike ride in the fresh air and sunshine will elevate one’s mood. It is possible to live without wheat and all the additives in processed food. Best wishes on your daughter’s healing journey!

      • @Claire, Heads up on the Foodsniffr organization. It is my understanding that food producers are NOT required by law to identify additives under a certain %. ANYTHING in a box, bag, can, or jar could be damaging to your daughter’s system. The tag line for this company is laughable. “Wouldn’t you like to eat a cleaner, gluten free diet – no GMO, no junk, just real food?
        How did we get to a point where we believe that anything in a box, can,or jar can be automatically deemed real food?

        • All I’ll say to that is that most of us do not live on farms, and are not self-sufficient as far as food goes. And yes, packaged food can be real and clean, such as beans, rice, grains, even snacks & meals. FoodSniffr is really not aligned with any food corporations, but it’s up to each individual whether and what they will trust or not.

    • @Claire Sorry to hear about your daughter’s issues. Doctor’s sadly do not even begin to understand food and nutrition, so they are really a poor guide to making these choices; that’s just the way medical education is structured 🙁

      I would take your daughter’s body cues to guide in making food choices – if she is reacting to xanthan gum, cut it completely out of her food. After all there are so many great gluten free foods she can enjoy without the overload of crap from GMOs, etc (did you know xanthan gum is genetically modified? that may explain all the gut issues). We created FoodSniffr (www.foodsniffr.com) exactly for people who are having some or the other food issues due to the modern food system – check the site out, we slice and dice foods along several different categories, and give you the good, the bad, the ugly for each food. FoodSniffr has a large section on Gluten Free.

      For healthy, clean gluten free recipes, check out our blog at http://www.foodsniffr.com/blog

      Do not be discouraged, certainly avoid going down the anti-depressant route – do give your family healthy and clean food, including healthy fats in moderate doses.

    • listentoyourgut.com a site that has helped me tremendously just to heal the inflammation in my gut. good luck

  7. The great dilemma when it comes to eating gluten-free! While the other ingredients in recipes can be converted to organic and Non-GMO, it seems this ingredient can’t be, and isn’t too good for you anyway. I found an alternative – use a flaxseed and chia seed mixture instead. Find it here: http://glutenfreegirl.com/2011/02/chia-seeds-and-flaxseeds/. Join us at https://www.facebook.com/groups/livehealthyliveorganic/ for updates on clean eating and more! We also have a Pinterest page with recipes and info.

  8. I am also highly allergic to xanthan gum. My last challenge of xanthan gum was 2 hours ago; I developed a skin rash within 30 minutes along with a lower back ache (this was just 3 small chick pea flour cookies that I made). I’ve had worse reactions with consuming more in the past but wasn’t positive it was the xanthan gum at the time (that’s why the test today). So it’s now permanently off my list.
    Yes, I’m allergic/intolerant to corn, wheat, all grains, rice, soy dairy etc…….a walking train wreck.

  9. Thank you so much for the article and all the great comments. We have been wondering why my husband has horrible gut reactions to some gluten free baked good and not others. We have been suspecting the various “gums” and all this information just solidifies those suspicions; so thank you!

  10. I normally don’t post on sites that I read, but thought I should here.

    It is only since the beginning of January that I have gone gluten-fee. My niece has Celiac disease and my sister is gluten sensitive. I have always thought I had problems with dairy, but have come to realize the dairy products I consumed are always with gluten products – pizza, pasta with cream sauce etc. More recently, for months now, I have been getting canker sores pop up in my mouth right after eating and I determined it was foods with gluten. At first I changed my diet to mostly fruit, veggies, eggs, meat, potatoes and rice. What I thought was bad arthritis in my knees totally disappeared and I felt great!

    I have really missed all things bread-like, though, especially when making them for my DH, who still wants regular bread, pizza, gluten-filled desserts etc. So I have tried my hand at gluten-free baking. I have found xanthan and guar gum give me worse symptoms than I have with gluten. Not cankers, but the intestinal upset, uncomfortable bloating and the runs (all day). Definitely not worth it. My teenagers, who have gone GF with me, to see if their complexions will clear up, don’t like the thought of what xanthan actually is. They are very much into natural foods as much as possible. To us, xanthan gum seems to have become the newest trend, like high fructose corn syrup, and is put in everything – even my DH’s favorite BBQ sauce, which years ago never had it in it. Trying to find things without xanthan is like trying to find actual chewing gum without all the artificial sweeteners anymore. It never used to be like that. When you bought Bubble gum, you knew it had sugar. Now it has sugar plus all the other sweeteners! Why? We buy Glee gum now if we need it for airline travel. I’ll take good old natural sugar that has been around for years rather than all this new man-made stuff.

    I also found it very interesting about that “Thicken-up” for babies. My son, 14 years ago, was born with a hole between his esophagus and trachea (trachea esophageal fistula) which was not actually found until he was 9 months old. After choking and turning blue (aspirating) and after many tests they sent him home on meds, O2, heart monitor, the works, and was told it was extreme reflux. It would take me hours to feed him. I found thickening up my breast milk helped, and as he got older thickened up everything for him, using rice cereal. I hate to think what could have happened to him if I used what hospitals are using now! Finally switched Dr’s after he still wasn’t sitting up at 9 months old and I was told the orange crystals in his diaper was from giving him juice, not from dehydration – he still coughed and sputtered anytime he drank. Two days later the new Doc had tests done, found the fistula and he had an operation. Started to thrive after the recuperating 🙂 Now he is taller than me and my DH.

    Sorry for the novel, but had to get my two-cents worth in this time. I’d sum it up by saying these new “food additives” are not necessarily better.

  11. We have a 23 and 6 preemie and after a feeding study we discovered he was secretly aspirating.our complex nutrition team has put him on “Thicken Up” it has xantham gum in it and scares the bajeezus outta me to think it may harm or possibly contribute to his death.please elaborate!!!!!should we stop all together.

    • Yes, you should stop using it! I read the NY Times article that was linked to in the article and it sounds like 7 babies have died from ingesting similar stuff! They suggested using baby rice cereal instead!

  12. Well I’m concerned about your comment on giving to infants. My toothpaste for babies has it listed as the first ingredient! I’m going to write to the company and cite you! Lucky I’ve only been using the teensyest amount for a week or so.

  13. I am highly allergic to xanthan gum. Within seconds of consuming anything containing it, the glands where my jaw meet my neck instantly swell to the size of golf balls (pain, breathing/swallowing problems, potential anaphylaxis, oh and the digestive problems too). It was nearly impossible to figure out exactly what it was I was allergic to, since it seems to be in nearly everything anymore. Needless to say I have been avoiding it ever since and have even obtained EpiPens from my doctor to be on the safe side (I travel a lot for work, just try asking a server if a certain item on the menu contains xanthan gum if you ever want to receive a blank and confused stare). There is only one, liquid, toothpaste that I can use because all the others contain it. It used to be a complete nightmare, but I have become accustomed to eating a lot healthier since I prepare all my own food now, especially things like dressings. The biggest frustration for me is the FDA allowing it to go unlabeled; since only more common allergies HAVE to be labeled but this one can often get lumped into the “other natural flavors” category. So I know I am totally a minority in this strange allergy, but my answer to this article is a resounding HARMFUL.

  14. Back when I was overly concerned about spiking glucose, I used to take xanthum gum before my morning (slow cooked) oatmeal. Never had any problems from it.

  15. I use xanthan gum when I make coconut flour baked goods, and notice a slight reaction but nothing too severe. I have far worse reactions to other foods.

  16. Have been coeliac for 20 years, and noticed the xanthan gum reaction (which often worse than the gluten) about 10 years ago. Generally try to avoid but sometimes have “treats”. My reactions are getting worse and now today are accompanied by flu-like symptoms as well. Also react quite severely to carraganeen (only noticed a couple of months ago). My whole digestive system just seems to be collapsing actually…sometimes now I don’t even know what I ate that makes me ill! Would like to go to dr – as I am really worried about the effect of sustained inflammation – but fear they will just dismiss me as a nutcase. Have had no problems with guar guar gum.

    • I also have celiac & react extremely badly to xanthan gum. Horrible headaches, joint aches, nausea, & repeated exposure will lead to a full body rash. After figuring it out I carefully removed it from my life (can be difficult since it’s in everything from paleo muffins to toothpaste). Despite this my gut seemed to be getting worse. I was questioning everything I ate. I’d seem to react to something one time but it would seem fine the next. Eventually figured out I had a histamine intolerance. Went on a strict low histamine diet & within a couple weeks I felt better than I had in ages. It’s now been about four 1/2 months & I’m able to bring a lot of foods back into my diet with no reaction at all. I know this probably isn’t your problem but it’s something to consider

      • Danyal, while everyone’s conditions can be very different, I think you raise a really good point, for Beth (and others) to consider the possibility that histamine is at play. Histamine has a very important role in inflammation. The symptoms listed on histamine intolerance websites, including Chris’ in another post , are very similar to the symptoms described by the individuals experiencing digestive sensitivity (myself included), and symptoms of histamine intolerance can be, literally, body-wide in all kinds of different systems. Low histamine diet web pages indicate that fermented foods (those foods which are affected, or, in fact, created via bacterial action) are often very high in histamine (examples are vinegars, soy sauce, cheese, etc.)

        It would seem logical to me that the right type of (histamine-producing) bacteria, feeding on a substrate of sugar and other nutrients (the process to create xanthan), is going to potentially produce histamine as a by-produce. Not sure if the type of bacteria used for xanthan production is histamine producing, but I’d venture a guess that the answer might be yes 🙂

        I actually can’t help but wonder if histamine isn’t a player in the early stages of inflammatory bowel disease, to some degree.

  17. Thank you, Chris, for providing us with such great information. Could you please do an article on guar gum? If you have already, I can’t seem to find it. I alternate prebiotics and was told that guar gum is one. So I take 1/2 tsp of it in hot water once or twice a week before drinking milk or water kefir or kombucha, all of which I make myself. I make my own nut and coconut milk without any additives. I’ve never had any bad reactions to guar gum but would like to know if what I’m doing is safe.

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