What Exactly Are Those “Gums” in Food?

What Are the “Gums” in Food? (And Why Mikey’s Doesn’t Use Them)

By now, you’ve probably noticed ingredients like xanthan gum, guar gum and cellulose gum on all kinds of food products ranging from gluten-free bread to frozen yogurt. These gums are added because they’re, well, gummy. Basically, their job is to make ingredients that don’t normally like each other mix together. They’re meant to improve texture and appearance of some processed foods to make them more appealing to shoppers. But what exactly are they made of, and do they really improve our food? Here’s a closer look.

Xanthan gum

Xanthan gum is made by fermenting sugar with a bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris (which also happens to be responsible for causing rot in broccoli and other crops) to create a gooey substance. An alcohol is added to make it solid, and then it’s dried and ground into a powder.

Xanthan gum is used as a thickening agent and to prevent ingredients from separating in mixtures like sauces and dressings and acts as a stabilizer so they can withstand temperature and pH changes without going wonky. It’s also popular in gluten-free baked goods because it adds the elasticity and fluffy texture that gluten brings to wheat-based products.

Xanthan gum in large doses has been shown to cause digestive issues in animal and human studies (though the evidence says you would need to consume more xanthan gum than is allowed in food to experience the side effects). On top of that, the sugar used to make xanthan gum frequently comes from wheat, corn, soy or dairy, according to reporting by Healthline. That means people with very severe allergies to those foods may need to avoid it altogether since it is almost impossible to determine the source of xanthan gum sugar in a particular product.

Guar gum

Guar gum is made from milling the seeds of guar beans, legumes mainly grown in Africa and Southeast Asia that look similar to green string beans. It becomes gel-like when added to water.

You’ll find guar gum most often in dairy products like ice cream and yogurt, especially the low-fat ones. It provides the rich texture that you lose when the cream is stripped out and helps prevent frozen goods from crystalizing (another thing fat is good for).

Like xanthan gum, studies have found guar gum to cause mild digestive problems in humans. Rarely, it can trigger allergic reactions, especially in people with soy allergies, because commercial guar gum can contain trace amounts of soy protein.

Cellulose gum

Cellulose gum is manufactured from the cell walls of plants, especially wood pulp and cottonseed. Like xanthan and guar gum, it becomes gummy and thick when dissolved in water.

Similarly, cellulose gum adds a thick, creamy consistency to low-fat foods, prevents crystallization and acts as a stabilizer.

But Do You Really Need Gums to Make Good Products?

Nah. It’s absolutely possible to make delicious and satisfying gluten-free baked goods without using any additives, and you can find plenty of high-quality organic dairy products that don’t include gums. Creamy salad dressings are the one category where it’s especially challenging to find a gum-less product because they separate without the gums to hold them together, but you can get around that by mixing up your own homemade ranch or blue cheese.

The bottom line

You’re better off avoiding foods with gums when you can. Sure, they can doctor up low-fat and gluten-free foods to make them more appealing, but why do that when it’s just as easy to make delicious products from simple, real ingredients without substituting anything?