Xanthan Gum: Gluten-Free Wonder?

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Posted: 08/06/2014 Print

Xanthan Gum: Gluten-Free Wonder?

Guest blog by Sam Hadadi

Xanthan Gum: Gluten-Free Wonder?

Travel back in time just five or six years, and we bet you’d have struggled to find any decent gluten-free options on supermarket shelves. What little there was also tended to be eye-wateringly expensive.

Yet lately, gluten-free products have soared in popularity – gluten-free is the latest buzzword, the latest dieting ploy.

Thanks to this, when you take a stroll through health food shops now, you’ll see shelves full of gluten-free cakes, cookies, baking mixes, flours, breads and even crackers. You name it, and there’s probably a gluten-free version of it.

But although many Hollywood stars (including Gwyneth and Victoria Beckham) have blacklisted gluten as a method of weight loss, it’s not all for fad diets. In fact, there’s a pretty good reason for it.

You see, more people than ever before are being diagnosed with Coeliac disease (rates have rocketed, quadrupling in the last 20 years1) and gluten intolerances. British charity Coeliac UK even revealed that 1 in 100 people are affected by Coeliac disease, which occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks its own cells when gluten is ingested.

Un-ripened wheat fieldUn-ripened wheat field

The charity attracts a staggering 1,200 members every month - and this means that the food companies have finally started taking notice.

Yet, while our shopping baskets can now be loaded with free-from options, what happens if you’re on a gluten-free diet and want to stick with the home baking and processed-free foods? Is it possible to achieve a perfectly light and airy Victoria sponge, without the gluten to bind it?

What Is It?

A gluten-free food store cupboard item is Xanthan Gum, with the slightly bizarre, scientific-sounding name. It is one of the top 30 most popular ingredients used in food products2 – and we’re not just talking free-from foods.

A fine white powder – very similar in appearance to cornflour – Xanthan gum grows from the fermentation of plant-loving bacteria (that’s xanthomonas campestris, if you really want to know). This also happens to be the same bacteria that causes black rot on cauliflower and other leafy veggies.

Xanthan Gum

First discovered by scientists from the US Department of Agriculture in the 1950s, it’s now found in all manner of things, from ice cream to table sauces. Plenty of canned and store-bought products even contain it, including salad dressings, soups, and baked goods.

It works across a range of thicknesses, temperatures, and pH levels. It also happens to be easy peasy to use and has no taste whatsoever – basically it’s a food manufacturer’s dream. 

What’s It Used For?

Look on the back of food labels, and you’d be amazed at just how many of your favourite products contain this. In fact, supermarkets have seen sales of Xanthan gum soar (hardly a surprise when  you consider that the British gluten-free market is estimated at £238 million, and it's still growing strong), while gluten-free specialists Doves Farm report a 50 per cent boost in sales in the last year alone3.

Top chefs are also raving about it (it can be used to create those posh foams and emulsions you find in fancy restaurants), with Nathan Myhrvold, chef and author of Modernist Cuisine, declaring it as "one of the best discoveries in food science since yeast.”

So, what’s it all about? And what is it used for?

Well, actually, Xanthan Gum isn’t just for the gluten-free foodies among us. In fact, it’s one of the best sources of dietary fibre known to man and has a wealth of uses, including: 

  • When added to oils and dressings, Xanthan gum works brilliantly as an emulsifier. This helps ingredients to blend more effectively, and stay blended while sitting on a supermarket shelf. 
  • It can also be used as a thickener when added to water. This is particularly handy for fat-free salad dressings or in pastry fillings, when it stops the water seeping out and creating a soggy bottom.
  • Budding ice cream makers may well know that Xanthan gum is great at creating a smooth texture. When used in ice creams, it helps to stop ice crystals from forming, therefore creating a creamy, bump-free ice cream. 
  • As one of the most popular baking products on the free-from market, Xanthan Gum helps to prevent crumbling in gluten-free cakes and bakes by giving the dough a sticky consistency and helping it to retain moisture. In fact, if you add it to be recipes and combine with gluten-free flour, you can almost mimic the stretching and binding qualities of gluten.
  • It’s thought that a whopping majority of the population struggles to get their daily fibre intake. If that’s you, then Xanthan gum, in supplement form, can add bulk to the diet and act as a substitute for normal fibre.

Surely It Has Downsides?

As with most foods, Xanthan Gum has its pitfalls.

Due to its rich fibre contents (there’s around 7g of fibre per tablespoon – that’s almost 50% fibre) many people experience bloating or tummy pains when eating products containing Xanthan Gum. Because of this, it’s probably wise to avoid it altogether if you suffer from digestive problems like IBS.

The gum itself can also often derive from plenty of sources, including corn, soy, dairy and – yep – wheat. Unless you’re absolutely sure of how the Xanthan Gum was made, it’s wise to steer well clear if you do suffer from a severe allergy to these ingredients.

However, if this is the case, then don’t panic. There are still plenty of gluten-free options out there to help you create perfectly delicious baked goods. We love using chia and flaxseeds as fantastic alternatives.

 How to Use It

If you do want to give Xanthan gum a whirl and have a go at some gluten-free baking, then how do you go about using it?

Well, it’s actually pretty easy to use – and, better still, hardly any is needed at all! For bread and pizza dough, simply add 1 tsp of Xanthan Gum per cup of gluten-free flour, and for cake, cookie and muffin recipes, add ½ a tsp per cup of flour.

As with all foods, we reckon you need to have a play with it and see how well it works for you. So, what are you waiting for? Go on, give it a try! 

1 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-27339919

2 http://blog.fooducate.com/2010/09/23/10-facts-about-xantham-gum-a-very-popular-food-additive/

3 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinkadvice/10556347/A-Z-of-unusual-ingredients-xanthan-gum.html

Sam Hadadi


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About Sam

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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.

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