Surprisingly, wallpaper glue and salad dressing have something in common.
It's xanthan gum, a food additive that you've probably never heard of but likely consume several times a week.
Given that it's found in many industrial products and has been linked to respiratory and digestive problems, many people are concerned about its safety.
But the FDA considers xanthan gum safe for consumption as a food additive (1).
Moreover, it's popularity as a supplement and common ingredient in gluten-free products is growing.
It may even have health benefits, like lowering cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
This article examines the evidence on xanthan gum to determine whether it's harmful or beneficial for your health.
Xanthan gum is a popular food additive that's commonly added to foods as a thickener or stabilizer.
It's created when sugar is fermented by a type of bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris. When sugar is fermented, it creates a broth or goo-like substance, which is made solid by adding an alcohol. It is then dried and turned into a powder.
When xanthan gum powder is added to a liquid, it quickly disperses and creates a viscous and stable solution. This makes it a great thickening, suspending and stabilizing agent for many products (2).
It was discovered by scientists in 1963. Since then, it has been well researched and determined safe. Therefore, the FDA has approved it as a food additive and placed no limitations on the amount of xanthan gum a food can contain.
Even though it's made in a lab, it's a soluble fiber. Soluble fibers are carbs that your body cannot breakdown.
Instead, they absorb water and turn into a gel-like substance in your digestive system, which slows digestion (3).
Therefore, your body is unable to digest xanthan gum, and it does not provide any calories or nutrients.
Summary: Xanthan gum is a food additive created by a sugar that's fermented by a bacteria. It's a soluble fiber and commonly used to thicken or stabilize foods.
Xanthan gum is found in food, personal care and industrial products.
Xanthan gum can improve the texture, consistency, flavor, shelf life and appearance of many foods.
It also stabilizes foods, helping certain foods withstand different temperatures and pH levels. Additionally, it prevents foods from separating and allows them to flow smoothly out of their containers.
It's used frequently in gluten-free cooking since it can provide the elasticity and fluffiness that gluten gives traditional baked goods.
The following are some common foods that contain xanthan gum:
- Salad dressings
- Bakery products
- Fruit juices
- Ice creams
- Sauces and gravies
- Gluten-free products
- Low-fat foods
Personal Care Products
Xanthan gum is also found in many personal care and beauty products. It allows these products to be thick, but still flow easily out of their containers. It also allows solid particles to be suspended in liquids.
The following are some common products that contain xanthan gum:
Xanthan gum is used in many industrial products due to its ability to withstand different temperatures and pH levels, cling to surfaces and thicken liquids, all while maintaining good flow.
Common industrial products containing xanthan gum include:
- Fungicides, herbicides and insecticides
- Tile, grout, oven and toilet bowl cleaners
- Fluids used in oil drilling
- Adhesives like wallpaper glue
Summary: Xanthan gum is included in many foods, personal care products and industrial products because of its stabilizing and thickening properties.
It's believed that it turns fluids in your stomach and small intestine into a viscous, gel-like substance. This slows digestion and affects how quickly sugar enters your bloodstream, decreasing blood sugar spikes after eating (4).
One 12-week study had nine men with diabetes and four without diabetes eat a daily muffin. For six weeks of the study, the men ate muffins without xanthan gum. For the other 6 weeks, they ate muffins containing 12 grams of it.
The participants' blood sugars were tested regularly, and both fasting and after-meal blood sugar levels in the men with diabetes were significantly lower when consuming the muffins with xanthan gum (5).
Another study in 11 women found that blood sugars were significantly lower after consuming rice with added xanthan gum, compared to consuming rice without it (6).
Summary: Xanthan gum may be able to lower blood sugar by slowing digestion and affecting how quickly sugar can enter the bloodstream.
Xanthan gum has been linked to other potential health benefits, though these benefits are unlikely to occur without taking supplements.
Some potential health benefits of xanthan gum include:
- Lower cholesterol: A study had five men consume 10 times the recommended amount of xanthan gum per day for 23 days. Subsequent blood tests found that their cholesterol decreased by 10% (7).
- Weight loss: People have noted increased fullness after consuming xanthan gum. It may increase fullness by delaying stomach emptying and slowing digestion (4, 5).
- Cancer-fighting properties: A study in mice with melanoma found that it significantly slowed the growth of cancerous tumors and prolonged life. No human studies have been completed, so the current evidence is weak (8).
- Improved regularity: Xanthan gum increases the movement of water into the intestines to create a softer, bulkier stool that's easier to pass. Studies have found that it significantly increases the frequency and amount of stool (9).
- Thickens liquids: It is used to thicken liquids for those who have difficulty swallowing, such as older adults or people with neurological disorders (10).
- Saliva substitute: It is sometimes used as a saliva substitute for individuals suffering from dry mouth, but studies on its effectiveness have found mixed results (11, 12).
Summary: Larger doses of xanthan gum may have some benefits, including lower cholesterol, increased fullness and cancer-fighting properties. Nevertheless, more human studies are needed.
For most people, the only potential negative side effect of xanthan gum appears to be an upset stomach.
In human studies, large doses of xanthan gum were found to have the following effects (9):
- Increased frequency of bowel movements
- Increased stool output
- Softer stools
- Increased gas
- Altered gut bacteria
These side effects do not appear to occur unless at least 15 grams are consumed. This amount would be difficult to reach through a typical diet (9).
Moreover, xanthan gum's ability to alter gut bacteria may be a good thing, as many other soluble fibers alter gut bacteria. They are known as prebiotics and promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut (15).
However, more research is needed to understand xanthan gum's potential as a prebiotic.
Summary: Xanthan gum can have a laxative effect if consumed in large amounts. On a positive note, it may also act as a prebiotic and encourage the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut.
While xanthan gum is safe for most, there are a few people who should avoid it.
People With Severe Wheat, Corn, Soy or Dairy Allergies
Xanthan gum is derived from sugar. The sugar can come from many different places, including wheat, corn, soy and dairy (16).
People with severe allergies to these products may need to avoid foods containing xanthan gum unless they can determine what source the xantham gum came from.
Simply Thick, a xanthan gum-based thickener, was added to formula and breast milk for premature infants.
In several cases, the infants developed necrotizing enterocolitis, which is a life-threatening disease that causes the intestines to become inflamed, damaged and start to die (17).
While Simply Thick is safe for use in adults, infants should avoid it since their guts are still developing.
Those Taking Certain Medications or Planning Surgery
Xanthan gum can lower blood sugar levels (5).
This can be dangerous for people who take certain diabetes medications that can cause low blood sugar. It can also be dangerous for people who are planning to have surgery soon.
These people are fine to consume some foods with xanthan gum, but they should avoid large amounts of it until its effect on blood sugar is better understood.
Summary: Premature infants and people with extreme allergies need to avoid xanthan gum. Also, those at risk of low blood sugar levels should avoid large doses of it.
For most people, eating foods that contain xanthan gum appears to be completely safe.
While many foods contain it, it only makes up about 0.05–0.3% of a food product.
Moreover, a typical person consumes less than 1 gram of xanthan gum per day. Amounts 20 times that have been proven to be safe (18).
In fact, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives assigned it an acceptable daily intake of "not specified." It gives this designation when food additives have a very low toxicity, and levels in foods are so small that they do not pose a health hazard (18).
But people should avoid inhaling xanthan gum. Workers who handled it in powder form were found to have flu-like symptoms and nose and throat irritation (19).
So even though you may eat many foods containing it, your intake is so small that you're unlikely to experience either benefits or negative side effects.
Summary: Many foods contain xanthan gum, but it's found in such small amounts that it does not have a large impact on your health.
Xanthan gum is a popular additive for thickening, suspending and stabilizing. It's found in many foods and products, and appears to be safe for most people.
It may even have health benefits when consumed in larger amounts, though these higher intake levels can also increase the risk of digestive problems.
Importantly, higher intake levels are difficult to achieve through a regular diet and would likely have to be achieved through the use of xanthan gum supplements.
While many studies have proven the safety of xanthan gum in food, few human studies have looked at its use as a supplement.
In the meantime, feel safe eating foods that contain xanthan gum. It seems to be harmless at worst.