Monday, March 29, 2010

Is Xanthan Gum Getting a Bad Reputation?

If you’ve tried to make any kind of wheat-free or gluten-free baked goods using flours based on rice or other non-gluten grains, you know what happens – the finished ingredient literally crumbles in your hands (or your mouth). Unless of course you add that magical ingredient, xanthan gum.

Food Rules: An Eater's ManualI recently picked up Michael Pollan’s new book, Food Rules: An Eater's Manual. This tiny little book, which can be read cover to cover in less than an hour, is terrific except for one tiny detail. Food rule number three says that we should “Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry,” and the third ingredient listed is – you guessed it – xantham gum.

So I suppose that means I am not an ordinary human.

All kidding aside, Pollan’s food philosophy is very much like mine – he advocates eating organic whole foods whenever possible. So I decided to take a closer look at xanthan gum to see what the fuss is about. We all know that xanthan gum has thickening and binding properties, and that just a little bit (¼ tsp to ¾ tsp) is needed to replace the gluten in baked goods.

But what is xanthan gum really?

According to Wise Geek it’s a polysaccharide (a chain of three different forms of sugar) created by combining Xanthomonas campestris bacteria with corn sugar. That sounds kind of yucky, so let’s look closer. It’s a carbohydrate. It’s made from all natural (occurring in nature) ingredients, and it’s similar to more familiar polysaccharides including corn syrup. Are you distressed that xantham gum is made from bacteria? Consider that yogurt is made from combining bacteria with milk. Similarly, adding lactic acid bacteria to milk makes buttermilk. They are all fermentation processes.

Is xanthan gum a whole food? No. Xanthan gum is a created food.

Is it bad for us?

My verdict is no. Those with corn allergies may need to avoid xanthan gum, but for all others who need to eat wheat-free or gluten-free, I think xanthan gum is a fabulous breakthrough that we should feel comfortable using in small quantities.

I hope to learn more at a gluten-free baking class I'll be taking on April 10th at the Culinary Institute of America. I can't wait to come back and tell you what I've learned!

What do you think? Do you use xanthan gum?


Anonymous said...

Very Interesting article. I have found Xanthum Gum to be a savior in gluten free cooking. However, in my opinion, a little goes a long else it becomes too stretchy especially when making non-baked items like doughnuts.

Colette said...

Anu, thanks for your comment. Yes, a very little bit does go a long way!

Jean at The Delightful Repast said...

Colette, I'm no expert on Michael Pollen; but I would guess his problem with xanthan gum has nothing to do with the bacteria but rather with the corn. I can't explain it well here, but I believe he has concerns about the production of corn within big agribusiness.

Colette said...

Jean, you make a good point about the way corn is produced. Nevertheless, I am grateful for corn every time I use xantham gum.

Abby said...

Although my son isn't allergic to wheat, he is allergic to milk and soy leaving rice or coconut milk, which are both very watery, for baking. We were advised to add a touch of xanthan gum to the replacement milks when cooking/baking with them. However, in my research on x. gum I've found that it's not always made from corn (some made from wheat or soy). Worse, the only kind sold in stores seems to be the Red Mill variety, which could be contaminated with tree nuts (a no-no for us). Which brand do you use and how did you verify what it was made from? What are the allergy warnings on it?

Colette said...

Abby, have you tried hemp milk? I find both hemp and coconut milk to be great for baking, and I don't add extra xantham gum to it. That said, I have used King Arthur Flour xantham gum, as well as Miss Robens.