What is Xanthan Gum?

Xanthan Gum

What is Xanthan Gum?

Xanthan gum, as a food additive, is used to thicken or stabilize processed foods. It’s name comes from the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris.  This the same bacterium that causes black rot to form on broccoli, cauliflower, and other leafy vegetables. The bacterium forms a slimy substance that acts as a natural stabilizer or thickener.

Xanthan gum is produced when the bacteria causes sugars (usually from corn, but can be any source such as wheat or soy) to ferment.

Allene Rosalind Jeanes discovered xanthan gum while she was working for the United States Department of Agriculture.

The E number of Xanthan gum is 415.

What are Common Uses of Xanthan Gum:

Xanthan gum is very useful in the food industry.  There are a number of properties that make it desirable:

  1. It works as an emulsifier (helps to bind oil and water)
  2. In baking, it can imitate the role of gluten.
  3. It works as thickener.
  4. It can create a creamy texture.

Some specific examples include salad dressings, baked goods, and ice cream.

Uses in Gluten Free Baking:

Gluten plays many roles in baking. It helps to bind the ingredients together and to make the dough elastic.  As a result, cakes and breads rise and take shape because the batters and doughs are able to stretch and trap air bubbles.   Using xanthan gum will produce similar results.

Is There a Substitute for Xanthan Gum?

If you are using it at home (especially for gluten free baking), you can use substitutes, but which ones really depend on the function it is fulfilling in your recipe.

Agar-Agar

You can find Agar-agar used in Asian desserts. The Japanese name for agar-agar is kanten.  It is a gelling agent derived from a red algae called Gracilaria.  Therefore, you can use agar-agar as a vegetarian substitute for gelatin.

You can use agar-agar in gluten-free baking to produce stretchy dough, chewy breads and moist cakes. Too much results in excess moisture in your baked goods, making them soggy.

Chia Seeds

Chia seeds are high in soluble fiber and they can absorb a lot of water (up to 12 times their own weight).  This allows them to form a gel like substance which locks in moisture. In baking, this would improve the overall structure of breads, pastries and cakes as they wouldn’t turn out dry or crumbly due to lack of moisture.

Egg Whites

Sometimes you can replace xanthan gum with whipped egg whites.  This only works in certain recipes that require quick hot cooking.  Some examples would be things like pancakes or waffles. The  egg whites trap air, which gives lift to the batter when it comes in contact with a hot cooking surface.

Egg whites deflate with long cooking times.  Therefore, they are not a good substitute in breads or other baked goods. However, in recipes designed to take advantage of quick, hot cooking, egg whites can be an inexpensive, natural alternative to xanthan gum.

Ground Flax Seeds

Whole flaxseeds are not very useful as a binding agent.  Grind the seeds and mix them with hot water to produce a gel like paste.  This paste, also called a slurry, is added to gluten free flour for baking.

Gelatin

Gelatin frequently appears on the ingredients list of some popular sweet snacks such as wine gums and jelly babies. It’s the gelatin which gives them their sticky, moist-on-the-inside texture. When mixed with water, it forms a gel-like substance which can be used in baking to make doughs stretchy and to retain moisture in baked food.

Gelatin is derived from animals. Therefore, it is not suitable for vegetarians or vegans. Interestingly, it also comes in various flavors, however, for breads, it is best to use the unflavored variety.

Psyllium Fiber

Psyllium husk or psyllium fibre is a relatively new binding agent which is typically used as a xanthan substitute in breads. It has been scientifically proven to improve the structure of gluten-free dough and improve the texture, volume and rising of gluten free baked bread.

You can typically find psyllium fiber as a dietary fibre supplement in most health stores.  It is often used by athletes to lower cholesterol.

Are There Health Issues / Side Effects?

Allergies:

The bacteria used to produce xanthan gum grows on many different media include corn, wheat, soy, and even dairy by-products. People who are extremely sensitive to the growth medium may suffer allergic reactions.

Is Xanthan Gum Gluten Free?

Maybe.  It is often listed as an ingredient in gluten free baking.  However, bacteria produce xanthan gum as they ferment sugars from usually from corn, but sometimes wheat.  Proteins from the growth medium should be removed during processing, but people who are extremely sensitive may still suffer.

Is Xanthan Gum Vegan?
Yes.  Bacteria produce it as they ferment sugars (usually from corn, but could also be from wheat, soy, or dairy).  Therefore, it is vegan.

Is Xanthan Gum Halal?
Yes.  The Muslim Consumer’s Group indicates that it is generally considered Halal.

Notes:

In addition to being used as a food additive, it is also found in cosmetics.

Interestingly, another major user of xanthan gum is the oil industry.  It thickens the fluids used in drill holes to cool and clean the drill bit.  When the drill is stopped, the thickened fluid prevents the drilled solids from falling back into the hole.

It is even sometimes added to concrete that is poured under water.

Sources:

  1. Chris Kresser, Harmful or Harmless Xanthan Gum
  2. Bob’s Red Mill – Xanthan Gum
  3. Muslim Consumer’s Group
  4. Is it Vegan?
  5. WiseGeek – Xanthan Gum
  6. Substitutes for Xanthan and Guar Gum
  7. 5 Alternatives to Xanthan Gum and Guar Gum in Gluten Free Baking
Posted in Emulsifier, Food Additives, Ingredients, Thickeners and Gelling Agents

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