What is xanthan or xanthan gum?

Although its name may resemble some kind of petroleum derivative or some kind of synthetic plastic, xanthan gum, also called xanthan, is an all-natural substance made up of polysaccharides (a type of carbohydrate). The name derives from the bacterium that produces it, Xanthomonas campestris. Surely you already know this bacteria, it’s the same one that causes black spots on broccoli, cauliflower and other vegetables.

Xanthan gum as a substance for industrial use was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture through a series of experiments that sought and succeeded in finding a new thickening agent with properties similar to corn starch or guar gum. Industrial production of xanthan began in 1964.

From a biochemical point of view, xanthan is considered a polysaccharide because its molecules are made up of a long chain of three monosaccharides (simple sugars) linked together. These three monosaccharides are present in corn syrup or sugar, from which the bacteria are fermented. Xanthomonas campestris produces xanthan. It is also produced by the fermentation of other sugars such as glucose and sucrose.

Main uses

The uses of xanthan are very broad, where the qualities of a gelatinous texture, a thickener or an emulsion stabilizer are needed, xanthan can be the solution.

Food industry

The main application of xanthan gum in the food industry is as a food stabilizer and thickener, often seen as E-415 on the ingredients list. For example, it is widely used in sauces and dairy products (it prevents the formation of crystals in ice cream and gives the “fat feeling” in defatted dairy products).

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It is also frequently used as a substitute for gluten in the production of breads, pastas and other products made with gluten-free flours; xanthan gum gives these products the bread-making qualities of gluten and is a carbohydrate that celiacs can consume (learn more in What is gluten?). If you see E-415, you should know it’s xanthan gum.

cosmetic products

Another field where xanthan is widely used is in cosmetics as a binder and stabilizer. One of the advantages of xanthan is that a very small amount has a great stabilizing effect on emulsions. Very little xanthan gum needs to be added to creams and emulsions to prevent their ingredients from separating.

It is a common ingredient in shampoos, gels, toothpastes, lotions, creams and makeup. Although it is a product obtained from a bacteria, xanthan gum is not aggressive or harmful to the skin or digestive system, with some exceptions for allergies and side effects. These same characteristics are also used by the pharmaceutical industry in various preparations (creams, gels, ointments, etc.).

therapeutic uses

Xanthan gum is used for various therapeutic purposes. Among them the most common are treatment of constipation, lowering cholesterol and blood glucose in patients with diabetes and as a substitute for saliva in patients with xerostomia and Sjögren’s syndrome (both diseases cause dry mouth). According to WebMD, xanthan is considered possibly effective for these cases.

oil industry

A lesser-known application of xanthan gum is in the petroleum industry. It is added to drilling fluids to improve their functions. This fluid is used to cool the bit, provides hydrostatic pressure to aid drilling, and helps remove solids from the hole and keep them in suspension when drilling stops.

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Side effects and health aspects

Xanthan gum is not digested by the human digestive system, but behaves like soluble dietary fiber. In the intestine it can be fermented by the microorganisms of the intestinal flora and produce inflammation of the mucosa, gases and uncomfortable symptoms derived mainly from discomfort and pain. for its laxative effect it can cause diarrhea if consumed in excess.

It is considered that 15 grams daily is an amount that can be safely taken before side effects appear. However, some people may be more sensitive and experience these symptoms in much smaller amounts.

Due to these side effects not recommended for people with intestinal problems, including celiac (gluten intolerance), vomiting, nausea or stomach pain without a known diagnosis. Even when used in gluten-free diets, the side effects of xanthan gum can worsen symptoms associated with celiac disease.

In the field of occupational safety, inhalation of xanthan powder produces flu-like symptoms, which is why safety measures should be taken during handling.

Xanthan gum can lower blood sugar, which is why it can interact with medications used to treat diabetes and cause an excessive drop in blood glucose.

Xanthan gum consumption during pregnancy and lactation has not been studied in depth and not much data is available. It has been linked to a possible increased risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis in babies, and in 2011, the FDA recommended not using milk substitutes containing xanthan gum in premature babies. It is recommended to exercise caution and consume low amounts of xanthan during pregnancy and lactation.

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Representation of the formula xanthan xanthan gum Additive E-415 Bread with xanthan gum

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