If you're an avid label reader, you've probably seen xanthan gum on the list of ingredients (like this Trader's Joe's Organic Spicy Taco Sauce). It seems to be in so many products, you may think it's a harmless ingredient. But is it? We asked two registered dietitians, Sarah Rueven, MS, CDN and Jessica Levings, MS, to tell us whether or not xanthan gum is healthy or if it's an ingredient we should avoid.
What is Xanthan Gum?
Before they can tell us if it's safe to eat, we need to know what it is. "Xantham gum is a polysaccharide, or a type of carbohydrate created when sugar is fermented by the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris," explained Sarah.
What Products Contain Xanthan Gum?
"It's often used in processed foods, medicines, and toothpastes as a thickener and stabilizing agent," Jessica said. It can be found in foods such as salad dressings, sauces, soups, chocolate milk, fillings for baked goods, ice cream, and certain beverages to improve consistency and texture and extend the shelf life. Sara added that xanthan gum is commonly found in gluten-free breads and baked goods because it provides elasticity that would otherwise be missing from gluten-free dough.
Is Xanthan Gum Healthy?
"The body is unable to digest xanthan gum and it doesn't provide any calories or nutrients, so it's neither healthy or unhealthy," explained Jessica. So don't worry about whether you see xanthan gum on the list of ingredients. Jessica said to evaluate the overall nutritional benefits of the food. "For example, xanthan gum in an ice cream would be a less healthful choice, compared to a vegetable soup that contains the additive."
While it's found in many foods, it's used in very small amounts, and Jessica assured that there's currently no research suggesting it needs to be avoided in the general population. Sara added that "the FDA has designated xanthan gum as a safe food additive."
Is Xanthan Gum Gluten-Free?
Although xanthan gum is used in many gluten-free products, Jessica warns that xanthan gum is commonly made from sugar which can come from wheat, corn, or soy. So people with allergies may need to avoid xanthan gum-containing foods unless the source is clear. If you're doing your own baking, use a gluten-free product such as Bob's Red Mill Xanthan Gum.
Is Xanthan Gum Vegan?
While xanthan gum is commonly made from corn, soy, or wheat, it can also be made from egg whites or dairy. If you're avoiding these ingredients, just read the label to ensure the food is vegan. If you're doing vegan baking, you can use Bob's Red Mill Xanthan Gum since it's made from corn.
Should You Avoid Xanthan Gum?
Sarah said that one of the best ways to prevent chronic disease is to eat a diet rich in real whole foods that don't require additives and preservatives. While xanthan gum itself may not cause harm, it's often included in foods that contain many other processed ingredients and are lacking in health-supportive nutrients. "I encourage clients to shop the perimeter of the grocery store where all of the fresh, minimally-processed foods are displayed and to avoid the center aisles where most of the processed and ultra-processed foods are kept," Sarah said.