Xanthan gum is something that you’re likely already consuming daily. If you check the ingredients list of your salad dressing, gum packet, or mayonnaise, xanthan gum is probably in there somewhere.
This bizarre compound is primarily a thickener used for various food, industrial, and medical applications. It is produced by bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris, which is where its name comes from.
When X. campestris bacteria ferment carbohydrates, the raw product is the pre-product of xanthan gum (it needs further processing before it can enter your food packets’ ingredient list) (1).
But, as with any product, the question remains whether it’s safe and healthy for consumption. There are many applications of this compound, and some health and safety considerations to make when deciding whether or not xanthan gum can be bad for you.
In foods to gain a particular texture or stability
It can be tricky to make certain mixes of ingredients we like into the foods we love. While they may taste good, mixing them together makes for a lumpy or doughy texture, or may separate over time (think oil and water) (1).
Xanthan gum is used to make salad dressings stay mixed, easy to pour, and smooth. In bakery products, adding it improves texture and leavens dough to form the delicious, sticky, thick loaves we like to eat (2).
It can suspend fruit pulp in smoothies, make soups temperature-stable, stabilize mixed dairy products, and give a creamy texture to foods. It’s no wonder xanthan gum is found in so many food products.
The processed product with xanthan gum is famed for its gluey and gooey texture. If you can think of a food that needs something to keep it from separating, make it sticky, or stabilize it, xanthan gum is your solution!
Even chewing gum, which has to be stored stably for some time and must maintain its texture and durability while being enjoyed, often has xanthan gum (3).
As a pharmaceutical additive to vaccines and drugs.
The food industry isn’t the only one that has learned the benefits and diverse xanthan gum applications. Its durability has been utilized in controlled release drugs (4).
When you take a pill that you want to last (think of your 4 hours of Advil relief or, better yet, 24-hour allergy relief), using a xanthan gum coating might be a way to prolong the release.Another potential application is in vaccines. Adjuvants are substances added to vaccines to make them taken up more easily by our bodies (5).
Usually, these substances cause inflammation, which stimulates our immune system, making it recognize the vaccine portion we want to gain immunity to more rapidly and thoroughly. Studies showed improved immunity over vaccine formulations without xanthan gum (6).
To stabilize the environment (yes, you read that right)
Xanthan gum has even been used to strengthen soil when erosion becomes a problem (7). Because it makes substances thick and sticky, it makes soil emulsions thicker and stronger. As humans continue to develop spaces, remove trees and shrubbery, and create artificial spaces, soil integrity can become a problem.
Reduce blood sugar increase post-meal
A study performed in human clinical trials showed that consuming a meal with xanthan gum acts like fiber in our diet, reducing blood sugar increases that occur naturally after a meal (8). This is important because it could reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes development and other metabolic disorders.
Lower cholesterol in food
Using xanthan gum could reduce the amount of cholesterol in foods (instead of adding fats to thicken foods like mayonnaise) (9). This would be better for cardiovascular and overall health, as high levels of unhealthy cholesterol are not good for your body (10).
On the same note, it also reduces the lipid (fat) counts in rats’ plasma and liver. The study looked at diabetic and non-diabetic rats and found that xanthan gum effectively improved the hypolipidemic effect (this means it removed lipids from the blood, which is good for overall health and lowers cholesterol) (11).
A note of caution: inflammation
Studies in rats showed that additions of xanthan gum increased inflammatory responses. This is bad news for those with (or at risk of developing) inflammatory disorders, including asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, and many others (12).
This may ring a bell from the vaccine paragraph in which xanthan gum was used to boost inflammation, making vaccines more effective. This serves as another reminder to be aware of how much xanthan gum you are consuming.
Is xanthan gum bad for you?
Studies mentioned in this article, among many others, show no complications when used, even in patients with existing health problems (13). A study performed in rats examining survival and reproductive health showed no difference between groups dosed with xanthan gum and control groups (14).
Two regulatory boards have evaluated the safety of xanthan gum. The Panel of Food Additives and Nutrient Sources and Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee found no health risks or problems associated with its consumption.
Here, the take-home message is that xanthan gum has many great applications and could even have a few health benefits. But, as always, you should be aware of how much of it you’re consuming (it can hide in the strangest places) and not overdo it.
It has been deemed safe for consumption and can be enjoyed in moderation.
For more information of food additives check out our “Is Maltodextrin Good or Bad for you?” article.