Gums are some of the most common food additives that even the savviest consumer may still not completely understand. They often even show up in many of the “healthy” packaged and processed foods (as well as the not-so-healthy), but just how safe are these gums?
Here’s an overview of some of the most common gums added to foods:
Xanthan Gum Xanthan gum is probably the most frequently used gum these days, thanks in large part to the skyrocketing demand for gluten-free products. It’s used in place of gluten to thicken, bind and stabilize food products.
Xanthan gum is the polysaccharide by-product of a fermentation process that involves feeding sugars to a bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris. The resulting compound is then isolated and dried into a powder, creating the food additive xanthan gum.
Because the growth medium used to generate xanthan gum can include wheat, soy, corn or dairy, individuals with allergies or sensitivities to these foods should avoid products that include xanthan gum. Additionally, xanthan gum has been found to disrupt the microbiome of the gut in some studies, leading to increased gas and loose, watery stool.
On the other hand, animal studies have found xanthan gum can increase beneficial short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), lower serum cholesterol and slow the growth of cancer.
If you have food sensitivities, digestive issues or problems with wheat, soy, corn or dairy, xanthan gum may be an additive you want to avoid.
Cellulose Gum Cellulose gum, also known as carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC), is a food additive derived from cellulose found in the cell walls of plants. It is used as a thickening agent and as an emulsifier to help disperse fats and improve consistency in foods like ice cream, candy, peanut butter, breads, cakes and other baked goods.
CMC has been found to trigger or magnify an inflammatory response in the human intestine and exacerbate ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. CMC has also been found in animal study to generate intestinal ulcerations. Additionally, research indicates CMC disrupts the cell lining of the intestine and causes dysregulation of the microbiome’s immune function.
Due to these rather extreme reactions for a food additive, avoiding foods with cellulose gum is strongly advised.
Guar Gum Guar gum is a natural food additive derived from the guar bean that is used to thicken and stabilize foods. The galactomannan polysaccharide extracted from the bean to make guar gum is a soluble fiber. As such, guar gum has been found to improve blood sugar and cholesterol markers, as well as reduce overall body weight.
Adverse effects of guar gum are primarily digestive and include abdominal pain, excessive gas and bloating. If you notice these symptoms when you consume products with guar gum it may be a good idea to avoid guar gum altogether. Locust Bean Gum Locust bean gum, also known as carob bean gum, is derived from the seeds of the carob tree and used in foods as a thickening agent. It is made up of galactomannan polysaccharides, classified as an indigestible fiber and in large doses has been shown to improve cholesterol and reduce blood sugar.
In some cases, individuals may be allergic to locust bean gum with symptoms like asthma or difficulty breathing. If you notice any adverse respiratory reactions from foods with locust bean gum it would be best removed from your diet.
Gum Arabic Gum arabic is derived from the hardened sap of the acacia tree and used as a stabilizer, emulsifier and thickening agent in the food industry. It is a soluble dietary fiber made up of a mixture of glycoproteins and polysaccharides.
Most notably, gum arabic is a very effective prebiotic and has been shown to support the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria and lactobacilli bacteria. There are currently no known concerns regarding gum arabic and if anything it is beneficial to overall health.
Gellan Gum Gellan gum is produced via a fermentation process involving the bacteria Sphingomonas elodea. It is used as a bulking agent in foods to bind, stabilize and texturize, and is also found in some cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Gellan gum is often used in plant-based milks and as a gelling agent in place of animal gelatin in vegan products.
A 1997 animal study from Tokyo found intestinal microvilli abnormalities after four weeks of ingesting gellan gum, indicating potential damage that could inhibit healthy intestinal absorption due to microvilli adhering to one another. This is certainly concerning, making gellan gum one food additive worth avoiding.
Tara Gum Tara Gum is produced from the seed of T. spinosa and is used as a thickening agent and stabilizer in foods. Tara gum is made up of primarily galactomannan polysaccharides. While it has been deemed safe for human consumption, there is very little research on its safety. Due to lack of research, it may be better to err on the side of caution and avoid tara gum until further studies are conducted.
Ideally, eating only fresh, organic whole foods without ingredient lists or food additives of any kind will always be the simplest and safest approach for overall health and wellness. In this way, you won’t need to bother analyzing labels to figure out if what you’re consuming might be gumming up the works inside your body.