Gluten-free bakers are divided on the issue of gums. Some swear by them, others swear at them.
Based on emails I receive from you, many of you are still on the fence about whether or not the addition of gums to our gluten-free baked goods is truly necessary.
I say, in most baked goods, it is not. This is based on eight years of experience baking gluten-free for my family and developing recipes for this site, as well as for food manufacturers and restaurants in the USA and in France.
When I first began baking gluten-free in 2007 after my celiac diagnosis, I never used gums. In a way, my ignorance of gums in gluten-free baking was bliss because it led me to ways of achieving excellent results without those additives. Who knew, at the time, I was ahead of the curve when it comes to additive-free baking?!
Several years ago, there was much hype about how we “must use xanthan gum in our gluten free baking to achieve quality results” (the well-known gluten-free baking guru who said that has since changed their tune and now asserts gums aren’t always necessary) that it made me wonder if I was missing something.
I decided to experiment to discover what all the fuss was about when it comes to gums in gluten-free baked goods.
I soon discovered I prefer my baked goods without gums. Sure, I created quite a few successful recipes as I experimented with xanthan (and guar) gum. You will still see those recipes here on this site (although I have since refashioned most of them to be gum-free). Some folks enjoy those recipes I created using gums, so I want to leave them here. Besides, we’re all at different places on our gluten-free journey. Some people enjoy a good gluten-free cake mix, some like to make homemade gluten-free cake with xanthan gum, and others choose to omit gums altogether.
Like many of you, I’ve tried it all.
Gums are Not Necessary in Most Gluten-Free Baked Goods
What I learned along the way is that I can manipulate ingredients in my gluten-free baking to achieve success without additives like gums. That means one less (expensive) specialty ingredient to purchase and one less food additive in our gluten-free foods.
Of course, you may be eating gums even if you don’t bake with them. Just peek at the ingredients list of pre-packaged gluten-free baked goods, box mixes and most flour blends. It is difficult to find a single product without some type of gum additive. Besides xanthan gum, you may see ingredients like guar gum, agar, carrageenan, gum Arabic, locust bean gum, or methylcellulose.
Many of you have asked exactly what these ingredients are, what they do, where they come from, and if you should invest in them for your home baking.
I agree its important to know what we’re eating. That’s why I’ve compiled these answers to help you decide how you feel about gums – in particular about xanthan gum – in your gluten free baked goods. Let’s start with the basics.
What are Gums and Why are They Used in Gluten Free Baking?
Gums are hydrocolloids. Very simply, that means they are large molecules that interact with water (or other liquid ingredients).
Most hydrocolloids are polysaccharides. Polysaccharides are carbohydrates made up of a bunch of sugar molecules bonded together. (One exception is gelatin, which is a protein.)
In gluten-free baking, gums are added to recipes to mimic the elasticity, chewy texture and fluffiness the protein gluten provides in traditional baked goods.
Different gums behave in different ways. Because xanthan gum is by far the most frequently used gum in gluten free baking, it’s our focus here.
Why is Xanthan Gum a Favorite Food Additive?
Xanthan gum is favored by food manufacturers and home bakers for gluten-free foods because it retains its binding properties (it helps starches combine to trap air) in a variety of applications like yeast breads and in foods that contain acid (like buttermilk, vinegar, or lemon juice).
You may see xanthan gum show up on labels using an alias like bacterial polysaccharide, corn sugar gum, or Xanthomonas campestris.
With all those strange names, it makes us wonder how xanthan gum is manufactured.
How is Xanthan Gum Made?
To make xanthan gum, some type of sugar is fermented in a sterile growth medium for one to four days with a microbial substance called Xanthomonas campestris (X. campestris). Alcohol is added to cause a solid to precipitate out, and that solid is dried and ground into the powder we know as xanthan gum.
Simple enough, right? Not really.
I have some food for thought for you about xanthan gum to help you decide whether or not you wish to include it in your gluten-free diet.
As you read on, keep in mind, I’m not trying to alarm anyone. I’m not even trying to convince you to eat (or not eat) any particular foods or ingredients. That’s not up to me – it’s your decision, just like what I eat is my decision. I simply want to continue raising awareness that there is often more to what we are eating than meets the eye, and sometimes, we hear the “big names” in the gluten-free world tell us what is “right” but with no explanation of why. Maybe they don’t really know. I don’t know about you, but I’m not one to follow blindly along just because someone says I should, especially when it comes to the foods I put into my body.
As a scientist, I have a natural tendency to research and get to the facts.
That’s why, armed with this “Smart Nutrition Backed by Science” I share with you, it is easier for you to make the best decisions for your unique situation as you achieve wellness on your gluten-free diet. Supporting you as you find what works best for you on your journey to optimal health is my goal.
A Closer Look at Xanthan Gum
The sugar that is fermented and used to “feed” the X. campestris bacteria is typically derived from corn.
For example, in a statement released by Bob’s Red Mill (no date provided), we learn their xanthan gum:
“…is fed a diet of corn or soy. Since it is unknown whether xanthan gum could cause a reaction in people severely allergic to corn and soy products, we recommend using guar gum as a precaution for people with severe allergies to those foods.”
(I believe that is sound advice when it comes to having food allergies to those derivatives.)
However, in a more recent statement from Bob’s Red Mill (posted on their website in May 2010 and updated on June 11, 2012) in response to inquiries about corn products used in their xanthan gum), we learn it is no longer corn, but now wheat starch that is used to produce their xanthan gum.
“Regarding corn in xanthan gum: The microorganism that produces xanthan gum is actually fed a glucose solution that is derived from wheat starch. Gluten is found in the protein part of the wheat kernel and no gluten is contained in the solution of glucose. Additionally, after the bacteria eats the glucose, there is no wheat to be found in the outer coating that it produces, which is what makes up xanthan gum. The short answer here is, there is no corn used at all in the making of xanthan gum.”
Perhaps you’re a bit shocked that wheat is involved at all, even though it is the starch portion only.
Well, it certainly seems the materials used for making xanthan gum at Bob’s Red Mill may have changed. For better or worse is difficult to say. One thing I can say is this: This is a great example of why I’m always going on about how food manufacturers change ingredients or sources for ingredients and we, as the consumer, may never know. Luckily, Bob’s Red Mill does share openly this information so that we, the consumer, can decide which products and ingredients are right for our unique situation.
Now, on product packaging for Bob’s Red Mill xanthan gum, here’s what you will see:
“Ingredient: Xanthan Gum
Manufactured in a facility that also uses tree nuts and soy.”
No mention of wheat there. But that is because they test their products and, as their statement claims, they detect no wheat or gluten in their xanthan gum.
Now, please understand I’m not picking on the good folks at Bob’s Red Mill. I like them and many of their gluten-free products. I even recommend some of them here on the site and frequently featured them in those outdated YouTube videos I used to make. I also appreciate the company’s willingness to be forthcoming on their website regarding how they produce xanthan gum. This is the type of openness you and I need from food manufacturers. It helps us make the best decisions about the products we want to purchase and use.
To finish up with how xanthan gum is made, I need to tell you the “sterile growth medium” I mentioned at the beginning of this section is usually wheat, soy or corn based. Again, that depends on who is making it. Any number of mediums can be used. These three seem to be the most common.
Finally, I want you to know what X. campestris is. It’s actually a plant pathogen. A pathogen is something that can make living organisms sick. A plant pathogen is something that can causes diseases, like black rot, in plants, and can infect certain weeds.
Could Xanthan Gum Be Making You Sick?
After reading how xanthan gum is produced, you may be wondering about how it can affect you if you have food allergies to possible derivatives like corn, soy or wheat.
The truth is, no matter how safe producers tell us their xanthan gum is, it can be a mysterious sticking point for some celiac patients and others with certain food allergies and sensitivities. For example, some individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity suffer ongoing gastrointestinal issues (bloating, gas, diarrhea) even after adhering to a strict gluten-free diet. In some cases those symptoms are a result of consuming xanthan gum. If you are experiencing ongoing (and unexplained) symptoms, consider the amount of pre-packaged gluten-free foods you consume that have xanthan gum, or the amount of baking you do with xanthan gum. You may want to eliminate xanthan gum from your diet to see if that alleviates your symptoms, especially if you have known allergies to corn, soy, or dairy. (Learn how to do this with an elimination diet here.)
Xanthan Gum Alternative
If you still want to use a gum in your gluten-free baking, guar gum may be an option. It can be used in place of xanthan gum in most gluten-free baked goods with similar results. Guar gum is derived from the seed of a plant and is much less expensive than xanthan gum. It is available in most grocery stores where gluten-free flours are sold.
Guar gum may also be an option if you like using gums in your gluten-free baking but are not comfortable with genetically engineered foods (like the corn or soy used to produce some xanthan gum – remember, different manufacturers used different base products).
Tips for Using Xanthan Gum in Your Gluten Free Baking
If you still want to use xanthan gum in your baked goods at home, here are some general guidelines:
Add 1/4 to 1 teaspoon per cup of gluten-free flour or flour blend (that does not already contain a gum), depending on what type baked good you are making.
For example, a cookie recipe would be fine with 1/4 (or as little as 1/8) teaspoon xanthan gum per cup of gluten-free flour, while a muffin or cake recipe would likely work well with a little more (up to 1/2 teaspoon per cup of gluten-free flour).
From my personal experience, I find the addition of xanthan gum to cookies, muffins, and quick breads unnecessary.
However, if you do use xanthan gum (or simply want to experiment), when adding xanthan gum to your baked goods at home, either dissolve it in the oil/liquid component of the recipe or whisk it into your dry ingredients. I have tried both ways and neither seems superior to the other. The point is to make sure it is either completely dissolved in the liquid portion or that no lumps or clumps exist in the dry portion. This will help you avoid slimy pockets in the finished product.
For recipes on this site that call for Gigi’s Everyday GF Flour Blend (or similar gum-free blend), I recommend you either buy the base ingredients and make my flour blend at home, or purchase a similar gum-free blend (like King Arthur Multipurpose GF Flour Blend). When I develop my recipes I do so specifically to avoid the use of gums in most of them (exceptions: yeast bread recipes), therefore I do NOT test my recipes with flour blends that contain gums or with added gum to my flour blend. In most cases, due to the way the recipe is developed, if you use a blend containing gum, your finished product will not turn out as intended and may in fact be “gummy” in texture.
So, again, I’m asked this so often, it bears repeating: Recipe development is not haphazard, it is a science. When I develop a recipe a particular way to work easily for you, you will always get the best results by following my recipes exactly. This is especially true for baked goods. Of course, you are free to experiment, and I encourage you to do so, just do not expect the same results you see here if you make major changes to a recipe or use a blend with gums, etc.
And it is not only in our home baked goods and store-bought flour blends that we see xanthan gum. Like many food additives we have discussed, xanthan gum can also show up in other items we consume.
Other Places You Might Find Xanthan Gum
In addition to its use as a food additive in gluten-free baking, xanthan gum is also used as:
- a stabilizing agent in certain foods (yogurt and salad dressing)
- in toothpaste
- in some medicines
- as a therapeutic for individuals with diabetes (it lowers blood sugar)
- as a laxative (it swells in the intestine, which is why many individuals experience gas and bloating after eating xanthan gum)
- as a saliva substitute for individuals who do not produce enough saliva naturally
So there you have it, a bit of information about another food additive that has quietly slipped into our food supply, perhaps in too great a quantity.
Now it’s up to you to decide if it makes its way into YOUR world… What do you say? Leave a comment below to let me know.
Be sure to read more informative articles like this in the Articles section, and enjoy my gum-free recipes in the Recipe Index. And for a 360-view of gluten-free living and how to transform your health like I did, check out my book, The Gluten-Free Solution: Your Ultimate Guide to Positive Gluten-Free Living.
To your best health,