Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide, a type of sugar that is made from a bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris, through a process of fermentation. Xanthomonas campestris infects a wide range of cruciferous plants, such as cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, causing diseases such as black rot and bacterial wilt.
Manufacturers make xanthan gum by pulling bacteria from many different plants. The finished product does not contain any viable bacteria, so there is no risk of xanthan gum causing infections.
- Xanthan gum thickens food and other products and also prevents ingredients from separating.
- Non-food products, such as oil and cosmetics, also contain xanthan gum.
- Xanthan gum may help lower or stabilize blood sugar.
- As with any food or food additive, some people may not tolerate it.
What is xanthan gum used for?
Xanthan gum serves two primary purposes:
- As a thickening agent: It is added to toothpaste and some other products to keep them uniformly thick. It is also used in industry, for example, helping to thicken drilling oil.
- As an emulsifier: Its ability to bind moisture means it can prevent products from separating. For this reason, it is an ingredient in some oil-based salad dressings and cosmetics.
Potential health benefits
Some research suggests that xanthan gum can improve health in the following ways:
Lowering or stabilizing blood sugar
Studies suggest that the glycemic index of rice may be lowered if coated with xanthan gum.
A 2016 study found that xanthan gum could lower the glycemic index of rice. After a group of people ate rice that was coated with xanthan gum, their blood sugar levels were lower.
The benefits were most significant when participants consumed rice covered with xanthan, instead of using xanthan gum before or after meals.
So foods containing xanthan gum might offer the most potent blood sugar-lowering benefits.
Xanthan gum may also stabilize blood sugar. A 2013 study found that xanthan gum mixed with beta-glucan (a type of sugar found in plants) could help prevent blood sugar spikes.
Some research suggests that, when taken in very high doses, xanthan gum may lower cholesterol levels. A 1987 study, for example, found that men who consumed xanthan gum for about 3 weeks experienced a 10 percent reduction in cholesterol.
There is little evidence that xanthan gum is beneficial on its own in the treatment of high cholesterol. A newer study has yet to be done to confirm these results.
Saliva substitute and treating dry mouth
Xanthan gum may be a useful and safe saliva substitute for people who experience chronic dry mouth. Some varieties of toothpaste for dry mouths contain xanthan gum to help lock in moisture.
Because xanthan gum helps to bind water, it may also help act as a laxative. The food thickener swells in the digestive tract, helping the intestines to remain moist and supporting gastrointestinal function.
Making it easier to swallow
Some diseases can make swallowing difficult, especially when the mouth and throat are dry. A 2014 study found that xanthan gum could help people with dysphagia, a swallowing disorder, safely swallow their food.
Xanthan gum does this by thickening food and saliva, making it easier for both to move down the throat. This could reduce the risk of choking and make eating safer.
Xanthan gum may help treat some forms of cancer by slowing their growth. A 2009 study, for example, looked at mice with melanoma, a type of skin cancer. Mice treated with xanthan gum lived longer, and their tumors grew more slowly.
Role in gluten-free food
For people with celiac disease and gluten-sensitivity, foods containing gluten can cause intense stomach pain, diarrhea, and other unpleasant symptoms. Flour and other ingredients in many baked goods contain gluten.
Gluten-free products rely on substitutes that can make them resemble the texture, crumb, and flexibility of gluten-containing bread. Xanthan gum thickens food and binds moisture, potentially improving the properties of gluten-free baked goods.
Potential health risks
Xanthan gum is a thickening agent added to toothpaste and is considered safe for most people.
While xanthan gum provides emulsifying properties, it is a type of carbohydrate known as a polysaccharide. It is not in the same category as some other emulsifiers that can negatively alter gut bacteria, drive intestinal inflammation, and worsen conditions, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
There is no widespread or consistent evidence of any adverse health effects associated with xanthan gum.
In 1987, researchers asked five men to consume xanthan gum every day for over 3 weeks. There were no adverse health consequences; in fact, there were a few modest health improvements. These results suggest that xanthan gum is safe for most people.
For some people, xanthan gum might be less safe. Those people include:
- People with a history of diarrhea or intense gastrointestinal pain: Xanthan gum binds moisture in the digestive tract, potentially making diarrhea worse.
- People with a history of fecal incontinence: Because xanthan gum can act as a laxative, it may make it more difficult to control the bowels.
- Allergies: People with a history of adverse reactions to xanthan gum.
- People who are severely allergic to cruciferous plants, such as broccoli, cabbage, or kale: Xanthan gum is made from the bacteria that live on these plants. Products containing xanthan gum may be contaminated as a result.
People with any severe food allergies, particularly to plants, should talk to a doctor before using xanthan gum.
Substitutes for xanthan gum
A handful of alternatives to xanthan gum can thicken food and ensure an even texture:
- Psyllium fiber works well as a binding agent and adds fiber to food.
- Chia seeds absorb water and make food more gelatinous.
- Gelatin helps moisturize food and maintains an even consistency.
- Agar is a vegan alternative to some other thickeners, such as gelatin.
- Ground flax seeds can bind food and promote a more even texture.
- Potato, arrowroot, or cornstarch can also improve the texture, thickness, and other properties of both cold and baked foods.
Xanthan gum is present in a wide range of foods. It is not a cure for any specific illness and is not a nutritional supplement, yet some foods treated with xanthan gum may offer health benefits.
People interested in trying xanthan gum should consider it only as a complement to their usual medical treatment plan. Research on the benefits of xanthan gum is limited, and there is no evidence that it can replace medication for various ailments.
It may, however, improve the effects of some medications, make food taste better, and help people with swallowing issues and dry mouth enjoy their food.