For the best part of the last five years I have lived in Thailand. In Thailand, gluten free rice-based dishes are commonplace and ingredients are mostly purchased fresh everyday at ‘wet markets’.
Outside of big cities, western dishes are not so popular, and equally-so gluten-free alternatives simply don’t exist.
Whilst living in Thailand, I would rarely eat any gluten free breads or biscuits because my local supermarket didn’t stock them. I made do without.
So upon returning to England after a half-decade absence, I have been pleasantly surprised at the sudden explosion of gluten free alternative foods.
Initially I was very sceptical – anyone who has eaten GF foods in the past has probably experienced the dry, crumbling, falling-apart excuse for bread and biscuits. But lately the products have been pretty darn good.
Better still, in the last year alone, free-from alternatives have become so good that they’re beginning to rival their genuine counterparts.
So how are food producers achieving gluten-free products that are good enough to pass as the real deal?
The answer: Xanthan gum.
1. What is Xanthan gum?
Xanthan gum is a powerful thickening agent used in a variety of different foods.
You’ll often find Xanthan gum listed as an ingredient in edibles like ketchup, toothpaste, chewing gum and sauces. Recently it’s found its way into most of the gluten free products on supermarket shelves.
2. Why is Xanthan gum in my food?
In the past, gluten free foods have been notoriously bad. Today they’re not perfect either, but they are getting much better.
The problem with creating gluten free imitations of foods like bread and biscuits is that gluten (the devil that it may be for the gluten-sensitive) is an essential ingredient for making breaded foods what they are.
Gluten is a gluey-type protein which sticks ingredients together to create stretchy and sticky doughs that can make bread, pizza bases, biscuits and other baked goods.
When you remove the gluten, everything literally falls apart. (Like really bad gluten free bread).
That’s where Xanthan gum comes in.
Xanthan gum is a super sticky thickening agent that can be used as a replacement for gluten in our favourite baked goods.
Xanthan gum, when added to gluten free bread mixes, does the job of gluten and helps bind all the ingredients together.
3. Is Xanthan gum safe to eat?
The short answer: yes.
As scary as “thickening agent” sounds, Xanthan gum is the product of natural processes (more on that later).
Xanthan gum is safe to eat and has been certified as a safe food additive in the USA & Europe for almost 50 years (about the same amount of time it has existed).
Typically Xanthan gum is used in very small amounts, making up less than 0.5% of any food product.
Scientists have found that Xanthan gum is a powerful laxative, but only when consumed in the range of 15g/day. A normal gluten-free consumer would never eat this much Xanthan gum and therefore needn’t worry.
High-end gourmet chefs have been making use of Xanthan gum for decades in jellies, sauces, spheres and other wonderful creations.
Because Xanthan gum is such an effective thickener, only tiny amounts are required when cooking. If you add too much Xanthan gum to liquid foods, it’ll make the food undesirably thick and stodgy.
Due to Xanthan gum’s powerful thickening ability, the FDA has warned parents about using it in foods fed to premature infants. However, this shouldn’t concern healthy adults.
4. How is Xanthan gum made?
Xanthan gum was discovered by a research team at the Department for Agriculture in the 1960s.
It is created naturally through a process of fermentation using simple sugars and bacteria.
After the fermentation process is complete, the Xanthan gum is separated from the waste, dried and turned into powder. You’ll typically find that Xanthan gum comes in a powder format with a similar consistency to baking soda.
In any process of fermentation, a food source is required. Soybean, maize and wheat are often used in the process of fermenting Xanthan gum, but there’s no need for your alarm bells to sound.
Even though Xanthan gum may be created using potential allergens, nutrients derived from the soybeans, maize or wheat are consumed by the fermenting bacteria.
This means the end product (Xanthan gum) does not contain any of the source nutrient or allergen which is why it is safe to use in gluten free foods.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Food additives like Xanthan gum can cause fierce debate, so we’re interested to hear your opinion.
Do you mind eating Xanthan gum? Do you think it’s healthy? Or would you rather avoid it?
Let us know in the comments below!