You Eat Xanthan Gum Every Day And You Don't Even Know It

It might come as a surprise, but gluten-free brownies, Caesar salad, lipstick, whipped cream, and toothpaste all share a common ingredient: xanthan gum. But what is this popular food additive, why is it so ubiquitous, and does it have any adverse side effects?

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Xanthan gum might sound like a confection out of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, but the food additive is far from a sweet treat. Xanthan gum is derived from fermenting sugar (usually corn sugar) with the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris. The fermented sugar is then solidified using isopropyl alcohol, dried, and ground into a powder. Xanthan gum is the food industry's Swiss Army Knife: It's used to emulsify salad dressings, thicken puddings and toothpastes, and reduce the formation of ice crystals in ice cream. Xanthan gum has also been adopted by the gluten-free community because it gives the dough a sticky consistency, texturally reminiscent of gluten.

All this advanced chemistry might make your stomach turn, but the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the scientific community as a whole, agrees that xanthan gum is perfectly safe to ingest. There are, however, some potentially adverse side effects that come from eating too much xanthan gum. Along with being an emulsifier and thickening agent, xanthan gum is also a very effective laxative. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that xanthan gum may cause "significant increases in stool output, frequency of defecation, and flatulence." But xanthan gum has health benefits as well. An article published in the journal International Immunopharmacology reported that the additive may have cancer-fighting properties, as it was found to delay tumor growth and increase survival rates in mice inoculated with melanoma cells.

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