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Gums in Health Food- Healthy? Or Not?

Guar Gum, Xanthan Gum, Locust Bean Gum, Gum Arabic, Gellan Gum- sound familiar?

I am willing to bet if you open up your cupboards or pantry, at least one, if not more of your food items, will contain one of the additives I just mentioned.

These are some of the most common food additives found in processed foods, especially in processed “health” foods (particularly protein powders, bars and baked goods).

While some people are concerned about the inclusion of various “gums” in their food, unfortunately, most are unaware of the potential these food additives have to negatively impact their health. They skim right over them when viewing a food items ingredient list, because they don’t really know WHAT these ingredients are, or how they act within the body.

In this blog, I’ll review an assortment of common gums that are often in processed foods, acting as thickeners, stabilizers, or emulsifiers.

I’ll discuss what they are, what the science says, and hopefully, better equip you to understand what these food additives do and how consuming them impacts your body.

Xanthan Gum

This is a very common food additive, especially in vegan and gluten free products.

It is also common in salad dressings and sauces. It helps to prevent oil separation by stabilizing the emulsion, although it is not an emulsifier.

It also adds a desirable texture and mouthfeel that fat usually contributes, making it ideal in low-fat foods like low fat or fat free ice cream and salad dressing.

It also mimics gluten as a binder so it’s abundant in gluten free breads and baked goods.

Xanthan gum is a largely indigestible polysaccharide that is produced by bacteria called Xanthomonas Camestris.

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 then sold as xanthan gum.

If you have a wheat, corn, soy, or dairy allergy this can be an issue the growth ‘medium’ used is often one of these allergenic substances. Many xanthan gum manufacturers don’t openly state what their ‘medium’ is.

There’s only one common supplier, Bob’s Red Mill, that I know of, that discloses their production practices.They originally used corn or soy but have since changed their medium to a glucose solution derived from wheat starch. (But, they still claim that the xanthan gum is 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 a good idea to either avoid xanthan gum entirely or check with the manufacturer first to see how it’s produced.

Overall, the results from animal studies on xanthan gum aren’t very concerning. It proves to be safe.

And since animal studies don’t indicate it’s harmful, there haven’t been many human studies conducted on Xanthan gum.

This study tried to determine the safety of xanthan gum when consumed by humans in an everyday dietary setting. But at levels much higher than you’d normally encounter in your diet. 15x over the current Acceptable Daily Intake of 10mg/kg of bodyweight.

Overall, they experienced an increase in fecal bile acid, and an increase in stool output and water content.

Another study had participants consume 15g of xanthan gum per day for 10 days. They found xanthan gum to be a “highly efficient laxative,” and subjects experienced greater stool output, abdominal cramping, and gas.

Based on the available evidence, the worst xanthan gum seems to be capable of (in adults) is causing digestive distress.

I say “in adults” because Xanthan gum increased the frequency of bacterial infection and intestinal inflammation in infants after it was added to their formulas (leading the FDA to ban its inclusion.)

I generally encourage my clients to avoid Xanthan gum, especially if they have digestive problems or sensitive GI tracts. Its structural properties make it likely to produce unpleasant gut symptoms.

If you are able to tolerate it, I see no reason to strictly avoid it, however it’s dose dependent. The more you consume the more likely you are to have an adverse reaction.

I wouldn’t recommend consuming large amounts because xanthan gum does seem to have a propensity for altering the gut microbiome, and that alteration could be problematic in the long run.

The small amounts that you normally consume in the context of a real-food diet shouldn’t be a problem but be mindful of how often it crops up in processed “health” foods.

Guar Gum

Unlike xanthan gum, which is a product of bacterial fermentation, guar gum is derived from an actual food: the guar bean, or Indian cluster bean, which grows in India and Pakistan. They look similar to green beans, and are a common vegetable dish in the areas in which they grow.

In foods and beverages, guar gum is used as a thickening, stabilizing, suspending, and binding agent. The physiological effects of guar gum have been extensively studied, first on animals and then on humans.

In rats, the only significant effects from guar gum supplementation were reduced body weight and lower blood glucose. Because guar gum is a source of soluble fiber, this makes sense.

Other animal studies conducted to test the safety of guar gum concluded that it is not carcinogenic or teratogenic (harmful to growing fetuses). (Here, here, here)

However in piglets fed a diet with added guar gum, researchers found it led to an overgrowth of E. coli in the large intestine, stunting overall growth.

Another study showed that the addition of guar gum in milk increased the survival of pathogenic bacteria, even after high heat pasteurization.

Guar gum is being studied in humans as a therapeutic tool for reducing blood glucose and cholesterol levels. Studies have shown guar gum supplementation to be effective for reducing fasting blood glucose, reducing insulin requirements in insulin-dependent diabetics, and reducing LDL cholesterol. (here, here, here, here, here, here)

While these effects are all posituve, these studies also found guar gum consumption produced adverse gastrointestinal side effects such as increased gas and abdominal discomfort.

In one study where subjects were given 21g of guar gum per day for 3 months, two participants actually dropped out of the study due to excessive gas and abdominal discomfort.

Although 21g per day is more guar gum than anyone would (hopefully) consume in their diet, even small amounts can cause uncomfortable GI symptoms in those with sensitive systems.

I’ve had clients with gut issues (myself included) improve after removing guar gum from their diet.

If you have gut issues, particularly small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or IBS, I’d encourage you to avoid it, unless you’ve removed it and added it back in without noticing any harmful effects.

Locust Bean Gum

Locust bean gum, also known as carob bean gum, is derived from the seeds of the carob tree. Because it comes from a “natural” source it’s often used as a thickener in food production in natural or organic foods that are marketed as being free of highly refined ingredients.

During a two-year animal study, rats were given locust bean gum as 5% of their diet, and no carcinogenic or other toxic effects were observed.

Similar to guar gum, locust bean gum has also been studied in humans as a potential cholesterol-lowering compound.

Normal subjects and subjects with familial hypercholesterolemia were given between 8 and 30 grams per day of locust bean gum for 8 weeks, resulting in reduced total cholesterol and an improved HDL to LDL ratio.

Participants did report increased gas, but it went away after a week or two, and no other harmful effects were reported.

I think the same suggestion I gave for guar gum applies here: if you have gut issues, it would probably be best to avoid locust bean gum. Otherwise, it’s safe.

Gum Arabic

Gum arabic is derived from the sap of the acacia tree. Under FDA regulations, gum arabic is given an Acceptable Daily Intake level of ‘not specified,’ which is the standard amount assigned to any additive with little or no observed toxic potential.

Gum Arabic is often used as a stabilizer, emulsifier, and thickening agent in icing, fillings, soft candy, chewing gum, and to bind the sweeteners and flavorings in soft drinks.

Animal studies have shown that it is not carcinogenic, mutagenic, or teratogenic, and even at very high doses, the animals did not display any effects of toxicity.

In a small human study, 5 healthy men were given 25g of gum arabic per day for three weeks, and no side effects were reported.

In fact, gum arabic had very little effect on the participants, positive or negative, aside from a modest reduction in serum cholesterol and an increase in breath hydrogen.

The increased breath hydrogen indicates metabolism by intestinal bacteria, which has been confirmed by more recent studies on the prebiotic properties of gum arabic. A study using healthy human volunteers found that gum arabic acts as a powerful prebiotic, selectively stimulating the growth of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. The study concluded that gum arabic is at least as effective a prebiotic as inulin, if not more so.

(If you’re not aware, inulin is sold as a popular prebiotic supplement, so that’s pretty significant!)

Based on the available research, gum arabic seems pretty benign, even for those with gut issues. I wouldn’t be concerned about consuming small amounts of it, but just like with anything else, be aware of your individual tolerance.

Gellan Gum

Gellan gum is similar to Xanthan gum in that it is an exopolysaccharide produced by bacterial fermentation. It’s used to bind, stabilize, or texturize processed foods.

To test the safety of gellan gum, the diets of ten volunteers were supplemented with gellan gum at approximately 30x the level of normal dietary exposure for 23 days. Gellan gum acted as a bulking agent similar to xanthan gum, but no adverse effects were reported.

However, this study done on rats found gellan gum resulted in abnormalities in intestinal microvilli, which (for me) raises a red flag.

There’s a lack of research available on gellan gum which makes me cautious, and I think those with sensitive guts or gastrointestinal problems should avoid gellan gum if possible, just to be on the safe side.

In Conclusion

  • As a general rule, gums are usually problematic for those with digestive issues simply because they’re mostly indigestible.

  • But outside from gastrointestinal discomfort, it’s unlikely any of them will cause significant harm.

  • Be most aware of Xanthan gum and guar gum. In my experience these are the two biggest offenders. They are also the most commonly used.

  • On the flip side gum arabic seems the least likely to create digestive symptoms, and its prebiotic properties mean it stimulates the growth of beneficial bacteria, so out of all the gums, it appears (to me) to be the least problematic.

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