What's the Deal with Xanthan Gum?

Unless you do a lot of gluten-free baking, you might not have come across xanthan gum — at least not in a recipe. Flip over a jar of salad dressing or a carton of ice cream to read the ingredients, and you'll likely find xanthan gum listed there, too!

So, is this a safe ingredient for a gluten-free diet — or an industrial additive to be avoided?

Xanthan gum is produced from a certain strain of bacteria (Xanthomonas campestris, according to Wikipedia) reacting with carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are typically derived from corn. The resulting substance has incredible thickening and binding properties when added to water or other liquids.

Commercially, this ingredient is used to thicken salad dressings and other sauces, and keep them from separating. Xanthan gum is also used in frozen products to make them smoother and creamier-tasting, especially ice cream. We see xanthan gum listed in a lot of low-fat products as well.

These same binding and thickening properties make xanthan gum very useful at home for gluten-free baking. If we add a little to recipes using gluten-free flour, we can nearly replicate some of the stretching and structural characteristics of gluten. And we really do mean a little! Most recipes call for only 1/2 - 1 teaspoon per cup of flour used.

We can't say that xanthan gum itself is necessarily good or bad, though some people do have trouble digesting it and develop symptoms ranging from mild intestinal discomfort to severe pain. As a corn-derived ingredient and one that can't really be made outside a laboratory, we personally don't like to use it very frequently. But for those of us living with a gluten allergy, xanthan gum can be a real blessing.

Have you ever cooked or baked with xanthan gum? What do you think about it as an ingredient?

Related: Food Science: The Low-Down on High Fructose Corn Syrup

(Originally published November 17, 2009)

(Image: Bob's Red Mill)

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