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What’s the Deal with Xanthan Gum?

Xanthan gum powder on a scale in a kitchen.
Michelle Lee Photography/Shutterstock

If you’re allergic to gluten or you follow a keto diet, you might have heard of xanthan gum. But what is it exactly? Here, we give you a quick rundown of the most important facts about this odd-yet-useful substance.

What Exactly Is Xanthan Gum?

Originally discovered in 1963, xanthan gum is the byproduct of sugar fermentation by a bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris. When this bacteria is fed the glucose derived from corn, soy, or wheat, it produces a gooey substance, which is what makes the gum an effective thickener, emulsifier, and stabilizer. The sticky substance is then hardened with alcohol, dried, and eventually ground into a powder that you can purchase at most health food stores.

How Is Xanthan Gum Used?

Xanthan gum is generally used as a food additive in a variety of food products. Most commonly, it’s found in gluten-free baked goods, as the viscosity of this substance acts as the missing gluten and allows for all the ingredients to bind and give the final product the typical elastic and spongy texture. This very property makes it a favorite amongst those who follow a keto diet. It’s also used as a thickener in many other things, including protein shakes, salad sauces, ice cream, fruit juices, and syrups.

Believe it or not, xanthan gum is also used in cosmetics, hair care products, and even wallpaper glue. This may not make you feel particularly excited to see it on the list of ingredients of your snacks at home, but you can rest assured that it won’t make them taste like glue.

Is Xanthan Gum Safe to Eat?

Generally speaking, yes. The FDA has approved xanthan gum as a food additive safe for consumption. However, it does have the potential to cause a few undesirable side effects, such as bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea. While most people don’t react to it, many can’t tolerate it and opt for a diet free of this substance. As a rule of thumb, aim to keep your intake under 15g (~3 tsp) per day.

Xanthan gum is typically obtained from soy, corn, or wheat, though egg whites and whey are also an option. Those with these specific allergies should avoid this additive. If in doubt, you can contact the manufacturer and get answers to your questions.

Are There Substitutes for Xanthan Gum?

If your digestive or immune system doesn’t approve of xanthan gum, there are other substitutes you can use in your recipes:

  • Guar gum: Extracted from the guar bean native to India and Pakistan, guar gum is a soluble fiber that acts as an excellent food thickener and stabilizer, and it’s both vegan and gluten-free. However, it’s not recommended for people with certain gut-health conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, and it doesn’t work at high temperatures or with recipes involving a high acid content.
  • Chia seeds: Mixing chia seeds with water creates a gelatinous substance that resembles egg whites and works well as a binding agent for most recipes.
  • Ground flaxseeds: If chia seeds are not your thing, try flaxseed meal mixed with water to get a similar result—a moist and nutritious baked good for your enjoyment.
  • Psyllium husk powder: This is yet another type of soluble fiber able to mimic gluten’s main binding property that can be used in most recipes.

The quantities of each substitute vary and depend on the specific recipe you’re following. It’s also possible to use a combination of chia seeds, flaxseeds, and psyllium husk.

How Do You Use Xanthan Gum in Baking?

Whether you’re making cookies, bread, or pizza, you don’t need a lot of xanthan gum to make your gluten-free creation taste just like the original. As it is with most recipes, many variables can affect the outcome but, as a general guideline, you should use:

  • 1/2 teaspoon of xanthan gum per cup of flour if you’re making a cakes
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of xanthan gum per cup of flour if you’re making bread
  • 2 teaspoons of xanthan gum per cup of flour if you’re making pizza

Though it’s not the cheapest baking ingredient out there, it has a shelf life of up to 2 years (depending on the brand). So, as long as you store it in a dark, dry, cool place, a bag will go a long way, especially if you’re not one to bake often.

Carla Cometto Carla Cometto
Carla has been writing professionally for five years and blogging for many more. She's worked as a journalist, photographer, and translator. She's also an avid traveler who hopes to inspire a sense of curiosity and adventure in others through her writing. Read Full Bio »
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