The most likely ingredient to gloss over on the list from the back of your gluten-free product is Xanthan Gum. Label readers are often looking for those other little nasty additives lurking under the guise of “Natural Flavors” or other convoluted names but take Xanthan Gum at face value without questioning what it really might be.
The FDA has deemed this ingredient as safe for use at under 20ppm a day, but then again, this is the same regulating administration that thinks it’s okay to eat food dye, sulfites, trans fat… you name it. So should we be consuming this binding agent at any dose? The most helpful way to come to any sort of conclusion is to look at the roots.
Xanthan Gum is a fermentation from the bacteria Xanthomonas Campestris. Before the 1950’s, this bacteria was best known for its ability to destroy crops of vegetables, namely broccoli and cauliflower. They called it “Black Rot” and for good reason. The slimy substance infected crops and had a thing for the cruciferous family.
At one point, the Department of Agriculture had the idea to cultivate the substance in order to utilize it for something more practical. Now, the bacteria are grown in large vats using a variety of different foods to sustain that growth. The food chosen for the bacteria differs based on the manufacturer's needs or options. Xantham Gum requires sugar or starch to efficiently develop. This includes soy, corn, wheat, dairy, or sugar. Xanthan Gum can, therefore, be deemed gluten free because of the source, even including that which is grown on wheat because of one small technicality. Wheat starch.
Wheat starch is the sugar of wheat, in a sense, and is technically gluten-free.
After the bacteria is grown to maturity, it is heated up to kill the bacteria, dried and ground to become a powder, then added to your food and also your wallpaper glue, paint, and ink.
It’s important to understand the history of foods before making a decision to indulge in them, especially for people with sensitivities to foods that might be connected in some way. For example, there are many consumers who are allergic to wheat and not necessarily just gluten, but due to the nature of the market, there are not many warnings about wheat, only gluten. Therefore, one who is sensitive to wheat may pick up a gluten-free product and merely hope there is no connection to foods such as wheat starch. The examples could go on.
Outside of allergic reactions, there are those who are attempting to sustain a particular diet based on a variety of reasons. For example, the Paleo diet is a pretty big deal these days. There are many different approaches to Paleo, but most can agree that over processed mold may not be the best option to include on a Paleo diet, especially when there are significantly better options on the market.
History is important. It’s what makes us who we are, and it’s what makes our food whatever it is. Because we really are what we eat, it’s important to pay attention.
Interestingly enough, there are actually a few potential health benefits to Xanthan Gum, such as lowering blood sugar or cholesterol. Unfortunately, there have not been enough studies done on human samples to verify these claims.
At the end of the day, information is power. If Xanthan Gum doesn’t bother you, great! However, if there is something sneaky happening in your diet that’s causing a mysterious issue, it may be wise to check it out. Now you know!