I get this question almost on a daily basis: “Hey Cara, I see that you don’t use xanthan gum in some of your recipes and I was wondering: Is xanthan gum actually bad for you?” Since this has become a hot topic over the past couple of years, I thought I would weigh in on my opinion on this issue and answer why I omit xanthan gum from my homemade gluten-free flour blend and ultimately from the majority of my current recipes.
Xanthan gum [zan-thuhn] noun. To quote its Wikipedia page’s definition: Xanthan gum (/ˈzænθən/) is a polysaccharide secreted by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris. Translation: Xanthan gum is a sugar derived typically from corn (can also be from soy or wheat) that has been pooped out by a bacteria that produces rot on various vegetables. Yup, you heard me correctly friends.
What products can you find xanthan gum in?
Chances are you have consumed xanthan gum mores times than you realize. It is a common ingredient in everyday items like toothpaste, medicine, various condiments like salad dressing, cosmetics, ice cream, and even gum. It’s probably fair to say that if it is packaged, it contains xanthan gum. Why, you might ask? It is a great thickener–it has the properties perfect for creating a food that binds well and is stabilized. Keep reading to find out how…
So xanthan gum is derived from what, you say??
Here is where it starts to get a little interesting. The way that this gum is produced is through the mingling of a sugar derived from corn and a bacteria that creates black spots on mainly vegetables like broccoli. Come on, you know what I am talking about. How many times have you bought that head of broccoli and forgot it was there in the back of your fridge, only to find that after a month of sitting there it has that black rot on certain sections of the florets. Friends, meet bacterium Xanthomonas campestris. Bacterium Xanthomonas campestris, meet my friends.
May we pause right there? Despite what a great help xanthan gum can be in your gluten-free recipe, that part always creeps me out a bit. Now please note that just because that part creeps me does NOT mean that I am yelling from the rooftops to stay away xanthan. I get that there are things in the this world that are created by mold or bacteria. Cheese being an awesome example. Cheese is delicious but cheese is mold. Does that still creep me out? Why yes, yes it does. Will I still eat it? Why yes, yes I will. Oh wait, I’m allergic though so there’s that.
Okay back to business, the fermentation process of the two ingredients (the sugar and bacteria) creates this slimy substance which is then dried up and made into powder form that you see on store shelves. This starts to explain a lot for those of you who have made the horrible mistake of accidentally spilling a little bit on your kitchen counter and then tried cleaning it up with a wet towel. In the words of Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”: Big mistake. Big. Huge. Your counter has turned into the slimiest mess that takes forever to clean up.
Why is xanthan gum so popular in gluten-free goodies?
Let’s do a little baking 101 here. When gluten (which is nature’s great binding agent) is missing from a baked good, xanthan gum steps in with its ultra-sliminess and attempts to mimic gluten. For anyone who has ever forgotten to add gum to their recipe, you know of the regret that occurs once that goodie crumbles in the palm of your hand. That’s exactly how xanthan helps a gf’er out. It makes your recipes not crumble, yo. But can you have the same end result without the gum? Stay tuned…
Why don’t you have xanthan gum in your All-Purpose gluten-free flour blend?
I keep a large bin of my premixed flour blend on hand at all times so when I am ready to start baking, all I have to do is shake it up, measure it out, and use it as an all-purpose flour. There are four ingredients in my blend: brown rice flour, sorghum flour, arrowroot powder, and potato starch. I do not add xanthan gum into the blend because I am finding that you really don’t always need xanthan gum in the majority of your baked goods. I have made pancakes, cookies, English muffins, bagels, and even gluten-free vegan sandwich bread that not only require absolutely no xanthan gum but has great texture!
So…is xanthan gum actually bad for you?
We are told that xanthan gum is perfectly safe to consume so no, it’s not bad for you. At least there have been no case studies up to this point saying that when consumed it causes major harm (unless you count that trip to the bathroom as unsafe). Some report intestinal discomfort like bloating, gas, and even diarrhea when ingested. However it’s still an item that has really come out into mainstream only recently so we (as the public) still don’t know a whole lot about it other than it works miracles in gluten-free baking. Should you avoid using it? Only if you 1). Simply don’t want to use it; and 2). Have an allergy towards the various common items which xanthan can be derived from: mainly corn, though research has shown that it can also derive from wheat and soy (though corn is the most common). If so, you might be having unknown reactions towards xanthan (I know of some people who get very sick from it) and it is best to checked up on it at your doctor’s. It’s best at that point to find creative ways to get the same binding result without xanthan. Is that even possible? Absolutely!
Are there any great substitutes for xanthan gum?
You bet your bottom dollar there is. For those of you allergic to the above mentioned items and have no issues with using a gum, Guar gum is your solution. Plus side: it’s cheaper than xanthan–hooray for saving money! Want an all-natural solution for some of your baked goods? There are two wonder foods that we can thank Mother Nature for: Chia Seeds and Psyllim Husk. There is something magical about the way they enable your baked goods to stay in tact, however you need more than two tablespoons for it to work., at least that has been my experience (which as we all know is subject to change as I continue to grow in my skills). The bread recipe that I created is a great example of how ground chia seed works. Also, a mixture of both chia and psyllium is a match made in heaven for xanthan-free baking. Chia and chia + psyllium works best in bread-like items. Some recipes simply don’t need it at all. I find that my cookies keep well without xanthan gum, especially when molasses is in the ingredients list, though not necessary. The items I’m still experimenting (unsuccessfully I might add) with xanthan-free baking? Muffins, cakes and cupcakes. Until then, only a small amount of xanthan gum is needed in a recipe that I am okay with it still to remain in some of my recipes. To be continued…
I still want to use xanthan gum. How do I use it in my gluten-free baking?
I haven’t 100% given up on the gum either so ain’t no shame in wanting to use it! Recommended usage for xanthan gum (taken from the back of my Authentic Foods bottle):
Cake – 1/4 teaspoon per 1 cup flour
Bread – 1 teaspoon per 1 cup flour
Pizza Crust – 2 teaspoons per 1 cup flour
Should you believe everything you read here? Nope. That is why researching on your own watch is so beneficial. If you know me, you know that I never push ideas onto anyone (just photos of food) and I encourage you to make up your own mind up on this issue. I am merely expressing my opinions. Is that the end of the discussion? Absolutely not! Did I leave something out or do you disagree with the information shared here? I would love to hear your thoughts so share away for the benefit of our community here…