Xanthan gum is used to suspend two liquids, like an oil and vinegar, together and to suspend small particles, like salt and pepper or herbs in the mixture, such as those found in a salad dressing.
Oil and vinegar normally separate, but xanthan gum mixes them together and keeps them together. This is called an emulsion, therefore, xanthan gum is an emulsifier. With xanthan gum, the same principle applies to baked goods. It can be used to bind the ingredients together in gluten free baked goods, which otherwise tend to crumble easily and fall apart. Sauces are yet another use for xanthan gum, as it will thicken the sauce without changing the way it feels in the mouth.
Xanthan gum does all this without altering the flavor or color of the food like other thickeners can do. It can be used in hot or cold foods equally well. It is extremely useful, especially for those who are on gluten free diets or making vinaigrette salad dressing from scratch.
Since xanthan gum is such a useful product with many applications in healthy eating, knowing what it is and how it is produced can help us make a determination as to whether xanthan gum itself is a safe food or not.
Before going into a discussion specifically on xanthan gum, it may be helpful to understand a little about the manufacture of yeast and to compare the two. The production of yeast is similar to that of xanthan gum in that both are organisms found in nature, but to produce them commercially, the most efficient means of production is in an industrial setting.
Both yeast and xanthan gum are produced in huge vats and monitored very carefully to assure optimum growth and sanitary conditions.
After they are ready for harvest, they are centrifuged to separate out the yeast or xanthan gum. Yeast and xanthan gum would be impractical to grow outside of an industrial setting.
The reason I mention this is because there is some controversy about xanthan gum and some of the things people say about why they would not use xanthan gum are also true of yeast, but these same people have no problem at all with yeast. Some of this controversy is based on the fact that xanthan gum is produced in an industrial plant.
The gum itself is a natural product that was discovered by Dr. Allene Rosalind, a researcher at the USDA in the 1950’s. She discovered it growing on a rutabaga, took a sample to work and it was studied at the USDA.
Being grown and produced in an industrial setting makes it unnatural in the minds of some people, but those same people may be using yeast without realizing that a similar process is used for both yeast and xanthan gum.
Xanthan gum is also described as being produced in a laboratory, but it’s really an industrial setting. It is grown in huge vats, not in a petri dish.
Another concern is that the gum is extracted using isopropyl alcohol and then centrifuged to remove the xanthan gum.
According to “Ask a Scientist – DOE Department of Science,” isopropyl alcohol is made up of 70% alcohol and 30% water. It evaporates completely leaving no residue. There should be nothing left of the isopropyl alcohol in the remaining powder. Some people are concerned that this alcohol may have been started with a petroleum product and ingesting petroleum products is not good for health, however, there is no residue left, so there would be no petroleum product left to ingest from the xanthan gum.
The term “processed food” is misleading. Virtually all food is processed in one way or another, but that is not what makes it a processed food.
The term “processed food” means a food that has something removed. Most processed foods have been stripped of their nutritional value and none of them are whole foods. For example, white flour is a processed food because it does not retain its whole properties.
Xanthan gum is not a processed food. It is a whole food. In reality we all process our food once we bring it to the kitchen, but that doesn’t mean we are taking anything out.
Everything we do to the food, like washing, chopping and cooking is a kind of processing. Another example would be the harvesting of wheat with a combine. A combine is a huge piece of machinery used to harvest wheat from the fields. That does not make whole wheat a processed food any more than using a centrifuge makes xanthan gum a processed food, therefore, it can be concluded that xanthan gum and yeast are not processed foods.
Due to our germ-o-phobic culture, many people have a problem with xanthan gum being a by-product of bacteria.
As long as the bacteria are not pathogenic, this is not a problem. Most bacteria are beneficial and we could not live without them. The fact that something is a by-product of bacteria does not make it bad in any way.
Many foods are fermented by bacteria that provide probiotics that help our bodies function properly, so the fact that it is a product of bacterial fermentation is not a cause for concern. There are many kinds of bacteria.
Most of the bacteria around us and in us are harmless or beneficial.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria, but if they were generally described as beneficial bacteria, there are a lot of people who would avoid them simply because bacteria sound scary.
Most corn and soy in North America is GMO corn and soy. Most people don’t want GMO anything in their diets, so they don’t want to eat xanthan gum, which comes from bacteria grown on corn or soy.
There are readily available sources of xanthan gum that do not use GMO corn or soy to grow the bacteria that produces xanthan gum.
Bob’s Red Mill and Ener-G Food are two good sources that seek out non-GMO sources for their foods. I personally spoke to the folks at Bob’s Red Mill about their products and they are as concerned about GMO as I am, which means they are serious about it. In checking the Ener-G website, they state that they do not use GMO ingredients and are part of the Non-GMO project. This is a good thing if you are looking for wholesome non-GMO foods. Both Bob’s Red Mill and Ener-G should be considered safe sources of xanthan gum. A representative from Ener-G foods also stated that they do not grow their xanthan gum on wheat.
It is not an actual bacteria. It is a byproduct of bacteria and therefore, it cannot be genetically altered. The concern regarding gmo is whether or not it is grown on a food that has been genetically altered. With Bob’s Red Mill and Ener-G products, they only sell xanthan gum that was grown on non-gmo foods.
Our recipes will continue to use xanthan gum, as it appears to be a useful product with no side effects or health concerns for most people and it has benefits for making food more palatable and dressing easier to pour.
It is especially helpful to those on a gluten free diet who want to eat baked goods, as it helps hold the ingredients together. Gluten free baking products tend to be quite crumbly and may fall apart before they make it to the mouth unless there is something holding it all together. Xanthan gum does that quite well, so it is in a lot of gluten free baked goods. However, xanthan gum is a polysaccharide, which is a complex carbohydrate. This makes it off limits for those on a strict carbohydrate free diet.
Most commercially produced salad dressings are loaded with gmo ingredients, but homemade salad dressings are a delicious alternative to buying questionable products.
When making dressing at home, the only type of salad dressing that needs an emulsifier is vinaigrette due to the separation of the oil and vinegar. In vinaigrette salad dressings, the oil and vinegar will separate when they are poured, so only oil will come out unless there is something holding the oil and vinegar together. This is why vinaigrette salad dressings are much easier to use when they contain an emulsifying agent, such as xanthan gum, to keep the oil and vinegar from separating. It also keeps herbs and spices properly mixed in the oil and vinegar solution. Without an emulsifying agent, a vinaigrette dressing doesn’t really work well. If you don’t want to use an emulsifier, it would be better to mix the herbs, spices and vinegar together, shake before using and pour the oil from a separate container.
For a vinaigrette dressing that uses xanthan gum, click here for “Easy Garlic Balsamic Salad Dressing.” http://thefemininereview.com/home-and-kitchen/easy-garlic-balsamic-salad-dressing
By Cynthia DeWitte
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Sources: http://docs.bobsredmill.com/index2.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=5307&Itemid=29 http://www.xanthangumpowder.com/History.html http://www.msi.harvard.edu/events/science_of_xanthan.pdf http://www.rtvanderbilt.com/SOFWCiulloAndersson.pdf http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/chem07/chem07023.htm http://www.redstaryeast.com/science-yeast/manufacturing-yeast http://www.nongmoproject.org/ http://www.cargillfoods.com/lat/en/products/hydrocolloids/xanthan-gum/manufacturing-process/index.jsp