The Mystery of Xanthan Gum…and Why the Holidays are a Perfect Time to Solve It


Ever wonder about this mystical term – xanthan gum – that you read on the labels of gluten-free baked goods? What is it? Why is it? How can you use it to your gluten-free advantage? In this season of homemade sweets, we all want to know how to give our gluten-free baked goods that little bit of chewy texture we’ve been missing all these years.

Xanthan gum is a great friend to the gluten-free baker. It adds viscosity to baked goods, replacing the elasticity that is lost when gluten proteins are omitted from recipes. Its name is a bit mysterious (the lead-off letter “X” will add intrigue to any word), so I was surprised to discover that word “Xanthan” is actually a clue to the origins of this GF kitchen staple. This natural thickener is derived by fermenting sugar by Xanthomonas campestris, a bacteria which causes black rot on vegetables, like the kind you see on broccoli. Xanthan gum is well-known in the gluten-free world, but it has other uses, especially where viscosity or a gel-like consistency is needed. For example, xanthan gum is used in many salad dressings, ice creams, sauces, creamy cosmetics, and toothpastes.

Xanthan gum is not cheap; half a pound from Bob’s Red Mill will cost you twelve bucks. Fortunately, a little xanthan gum goes a long way in recipes, so if you’re going to be doing a lot of gluten-free baking from scratch, it’s worth the initial investment. It comes in the form of a white powder, and most recipes only call for a teaspoon or two. Once you learn the name, you’ll see it everywhere: almost all gluten-free recipes for bread, pizza crust, cakes, or cookies require xanthan gum and it can be found on most of the ingredient labels for gluten-free baked goods and gluten-free baking mixes.

So let’s hear it for xanthan gum, your mighty ally in the gluten-free kitchen! How do you use it to make your gluten-free baked goods better?

8 thoughts on “The Mystery of Xanthan Gum…and Why the Holidays are a Perfect Time to Solve It”

  1. Xanthan gum can be corn derived. More and more research suggests that the gluten in corn can also be a trigger for those with gluten sensitivity. So xanthan gum may not be the panacea you claim if it’s derived from corn. I for one am a Celiac who cannot eat corn.

  2. I always cringe seeing xanthan gum promoted on GF sites. It may be perfectly fine for a lot of people, but it also probably causes problems for a lot of people who don’t realize it. It may be “natural” but it’s also highly processed, so not really natural and not a good choice for many. (Perhaps agar agar would work just as well?)

    My understanding is that xanthan gum is grown on corn sugars, so a potential issue for people avoiding corn. It is also high in glutamates so can cause excitotoxicity to brain cells (over exciting brain cells to death) as well as affecting cells of the heart (brain and heart cells are both very high in glutamate receptors).

    I personally can’t tolerate even small amounts of xanthan gum as it causes my heart to race as well as giving me palpitations, and I get a very weird, zoney, spacey feeling in my head. All of these reactions are lessened greatly by taking GABA and magnesium, which indicates that these reactions appear to be due to xanthan gum being an excitotoxin.

    I just wanted to provide some food for thought for people who eat xanthan gum and may feel weird reactions afterward.

  3. I totally agree with the commentsa bout xanthan- the stuff makes my heart race, room spin, and i get sick. If you have a significant mold sensitivity, or a significant corn sensitivity, xanthan is not so hot. It also causes a similar reaction in your body to MSG. Overall, the stuff makes me uber sick.

    I find there are some decent alternatives out there if you’re willing to experiment- for example, ground agar agar powder (seaweed, you can get it at your asian grocery or health food store), usually 1 1/2 to 2 tsp per recipe for cookies and ‘short’ baking works well. For baked goods like breads and cakes- i use a combination of pureed fruit like banana for its natural binding and 1 tbsp of unflavoured gelatin.

    hope this helps! I figured out an awesome chocolate cake recipe without xanthan gum, and all my xmas cookies are without it, so, it can be done :)

  4. Xanthan gum is made from the same bacteria which causes leafy vegetables to form black rot. It is fed on corn, wheat or soy then made into a powder which turns into glue when water is added.
    Although it is technically gluten free, it is still possible for it to contain traces of gluten, causing similar symptoms in some people.
    |I have totally excluded it from my diet now and am amazed that food manufacturers are using it so widely in gluten free food merchandise.

  5. Jane, I totally agree and congratulations on such a cool (and informative website)! Its really well researched and I should imagine a big help for newly diagnosed celiacs as well as people suffering from other wheat related conditions.
    Is your food sold anywhere?

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