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Gums: Is There Danger Lurking in Your Food?

Gums: Is There Danger Lurking in Your Food?

Tiffani Bachus, R.D.N., and Erin Macdonald, R.D.N

Open your refrigerator and pull out that bottle of almond milk. When you read the ingredient list, do you see xantham gum or guar gum? Have you ever wondered what these gums are and whether or not you should be concerned about their safety?

There are a whole host of gums that are widely used in the food and personal-care industries. They act as thickeners, stabilizers and emulsifiers, and some are made from food, while others are the product of bacterial fermentation. Questions regarding their safety have arisen due to reports of potential side effects, as well as the results of some animal and human studies. The purpose of this article is to provide you with information on gums so you can make informed, healthy decisions about what you and your family consume.

Guar Gum

Made from the guar bean or Indian cluster bean, guar gum is used to stabilize, emulsify and thicken the texture of foods and industrial products, including almond milk, yogurt, soup and fiber supplements. Guar gum has eight times the thickening potency as cornstarch and holds up well to freezing and thawing cycles, as well as heat. It also acts as a binding agent in gluten-free recipes. Guar gum is low in calories and high in fiber, which can help you stay fuller for longer and may assist in weight control. It can also help normalize blood sugar and cholesterol levels, which decreases risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Unfortunately, guar gum can also lead to gastrointestinal (GI) side effects such as gas. In addition, the excessive use of guar diet pills, which results in a large amount of gel in the GI tract, can obstruct the esophagus and intestines. To date, no carcinogenic effects of gums have been reported.

Xantham Gum

Commonly found in gluten-free baked goods, this thickening and stabilizing agent is made by bacterial fermentation. Some have raised concern over the foods from which xanthan gum is derived: GMO corn, GMO soy, wheat and dairy, all of which are common food allergens. Not only will you find xanthan gum in baked goods, they may also be present in jams, sauces, puddings, pastry fillings, ice cream and sherbet, as well as non-food items, such as lotions, medicine, toothpaste, paint, tile grout and herbicides.

Safety concerns about the use of xanthan gum have arisen as high doses can cause GI side effects, such as gas, softer stools and increased stool output. In 2011, the FDA warned against giving infants Simply Thick, which is often added to formula to help infants with swallowing problems. The product was linked to necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a condition in which the intestinal tissue becomes inflamed and dies. No animal or human studies have found damage to the intestinal mucosa following xanthan gum consumption, even in large doses, so this danger appears to be unique to infants. One study published in 2009 showed a possible benefit as a cancer fighter, as xanthan gum significantly retarded tumor growth and prolonged survival of mice who had melanoma.

Acacia Gum (Gum Arabic)

Acacia gum is produced from the sap of the acacia tree and found in dairy and soybean products, canned food, essential oils, soft drinks, hard gummy candy, marshmallows and cough syrups, as it holds mixtures together that wouldn’t usually blend well. Acacia gum can be classified as a prebiotic, as it elicits an increase in breath hydrogen after consumption. As a prebiotic (which is the nourishment for probiotics), it can selectively stimulate the growth of bifidobacterium and lactobacilli in the colon.

Possible benefits of acacia gum were identified by a 2012 study in which participants who ingested 30 grams per day for one and a half months had a lower body mass index. However, possible side effects include bloating, gas, and loose stools. It is not recommended for pregnant or lactating women, as it interacts with iron-containing supplements and can cause an allergic reaction that results in skin lesions and respiratory problems.

Tara Gum

Tara gum is one of the newest food additives and there is little data available on it safety and efficacy. Unlike other gums, tara gum is derived from the legume of an ornamental shrub from Peru. It is odorless and tasteless and often used with xanthan gum or carageenan as a thickener and stabilizer in dairy products, tortillas, canned vegetables and canned legumes. As with other gums, the most frequently reported side effects are abdominal bloating and gas. No toxic side effects have yet been reported.

Gellan Gum

Gellan gum is similar to xanthan gum in that it is an exopolysaccharide produced by bacterial fermentation. It acts as a bulking agent, emulsifier, stabilizer and thickener, and is found in baked goods, jams, sauces, ice cream and confectionary goods. It is commonly used in vegan foods and personal-care items.

Some studies have shown that consuming gellan gum lowered total cholesterol approximately 10%, and thus far no toxic effects have been found. A lack of available research means there is insufficient data to conclude the safety and efficacy of gellan gum.

Locust Bean Gum (Carob Bean Gum)

Made from the seeds of the carob tree, locust bean gum has a sweet flavor and is commonly used to sweeten foods and as a substitute for chocolate. It is durable and soluble in hot water, which makes it useful in powdered hot chocolate mixes. Locust bean gum is high in fiber and has been associated with improved blood sugar levels, lowered total cholesterol, and improved HDL-to-LDL ratio.

Some increase in abdominal gas has been reported. In a two-year animal study, no carcinogenic effects were reported. There is a potential for the fiber in locust bean gum to interfere with the absorption of zinc, iron and calcium, which can lead to numerous health conditions if consumed daily. Currently, there is not enough information regarding locust bean gum’s safety for pregnant or breast-feeding women.

Carageenan

Of all the gums, carageenan is probably the most controversial. It is an indigestible polysaccharide derived from red algae and is used as a thickener and emulsifier to improve the texture of ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, soy milk and other processed foods. There are two types of carageenan: undegraded, which is used in food; and degraded, which is not approved for use in food.

Numerous studies have shown an increase in gut inflammation, glucose intolerance, impaired insulin action and systemic inflammation with daily intake of carageenan. Regardless of the studies, the FDA still approves this as an additive. In 2015, the Joint Expert Committee of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization on Food Additives said that carageenan is “not of concern” when used in infant formula at concentrations up to 1,000 mg per liter. It is worth noting that, unlike the United States, the European Union has banned carageenan for this use.

The Bottom Line

Gums are an increasingly common ingredient in many processed foods,as they act to thicken, emulsify and stabilize products. Numerous studies (mostly animal) have shown that regular consumption of these gums will cause gastrointestinal side effects, such as abdominal gas, bloating and loose stools. Gums can be a problem for people with digestive issues or sensitivities and should be limited or avoided. Likewise, pregnant and lactating women should err on the side of caution with regard to the safety of gums. As always, do your homework and learn as much as you can about the food you put into your body. Reducing consumption of processed foods (and the gums found in them) is one of the cornerstones for improving overall health and well-being.

 

References

Anderson, D.M. et al. (1988). The dietary effects of gellan gum in humansFood Addit Contam, 5, 3.

Borzelleca, J. et al. (1993). Evaluation of the Safety of Tara Gum as a Food Ingredient: A Review of the LiteratureInternational Journal of Toxicology, 12, 1.

Choi, H. et al. (2012). Pro-inflammatory NF-kB and early growth response gene 1 regulate epithelial barrier disruption by food additive carrageenan in human intestinal epithelial cellsToxicology Letters, 211, 3.

Foodchem (2014). Locust Bean Gum Side EffectsFoodchem.