Gums, Thickeners, and Emulsifiers in Food: Are They Really Bad?

Inevitably, the question becomes: Why do we care? Up until the past two decades, there wasn't exactly a huge outcry about what was being added to food. However, the natural food sections have since expanded – in some places, monopolizing entire stores – as consumer concern over which ingredients belong in their foods has become the driving force of product innovation.

If you've at all dabbled in ingredient lists, you've no doubt noticed items ending in "gum" and words like "lecithin." These are your added thickeners, gums, and emulsifiers. They may be plant-derived, but are not typically the best applications of nature. Indeed, their purpose is hardly nutritional: it's simply to make inferiorly processed products sufficiently thick and consistent to be palatable.

What Is a Food Thickening Agent?

The scientific definition of food thickening agents is: polysaccharides (long-chain sugar molecules) or soluble fibers used by the food industry to help emulsify, thicken, stabilize, and/or bind compounds in processed foods. Don't be fooled by a pure-sounding word like "fiber." These agents often have to be intensively mined from their sources, then blended into complex formulations barely resembling the source ingredient emblazoned on the package.

Your keywords to identify food thickening agents include gum, carrageenan, and lecithin. Common examples proven to be problematic are: guar gum, gellan gum, carob bean gum, arabic gum, xanthan gum, carrageenan, cellulose gum, and sunflower lecithin.

Should I Care If There Are Thickeners and Emulsifiers in My Food?

Have you ever wondered, “What’s really in my food?” Gums, thickeners, and emulsifiers may well be.

  • Is it bad? As you’ll learn, some of these additives are worse than others, but none are nutritionally necessary and, at their worse, you wouldn’t want to touch – let alone ingest – them.
  • Is it safe? The FDA approves many thickeners and emulsifiers. So, technically yes. But there are enough questions to warn us away.
  • Is it natural? Yes and no. While derived from plants, many gums undergo complex industrial extraction processes to reach a useable state.
  • How does it affect my body? Studies have shown interesting effects on animals and humans. We detail these below.

Generally, gums, emulsifiers, and thickeners undermine the quality of a food. There is a big difference between an almond milk touting 1g of protein and 12 ingredients (some of which antagonize mineral absorption) vs. an almond milk with 5g of protein and two ingredients.

Common Food Thickening Agents

Now let's consider the ins and outs of some of the more popular thickening agents on the market. Pay special attention to the arduous task necessary to create these compounds; and the level of scientific testing needed to merely deem whether they are actually fit for human consumption.

Side effects of gums infographic - desktop Side effects of gums infographic - mobile

Xanthan Gum

What is xanthan gum?
Xanthan gum comes from the Xanthomonas campestris, a bacterium grown in a sweetened liquid medium (the sugar derived from wheat, corn, soy, and/or dairy). This bacterium ferments the sugar into xanthan gum, which is precipitated out using isopropyl alcohol, and later ground into a powder. 1

What does xanthan gum do to me?

  • This gum has been shown to be a highly effective laxative, causing gas and diarrhea in 18 healthy individuals consuming 15g per day over a 10-day period. 2
  • Xanthan gum increased the frequency of bacterial infection and intestinal inflammation in infants after it was added to their formulas (leading the FDA to ban its inclusion in formulas thereafter). 3

How is xanthan gum used?
In food, xanthan gum is used as a thickener. It serves the same function for drilling mud in the oil industry, though workers have experienced respiratory systems from inhaling its dust.

This is one of your red flag gums. We would steer clear of anything with “xanthan” on the package. Effectively a laxative, it is the worst gum for digestive health, causing diarrhea in higher doses and contributing to intestinal issues in infants. Its industrial uses are also less than reassuring.

Lecithin

What is lecithin?
Lecithin can be found in a variety of foods, including soybeans, egg yolks, milk, canola oil, cottonseed oil, and sunflower seed oil. It can be extracted mechanically or chemically through the use of loveable solvents such as hexane, ethanol, acetone, petroleum ether, or benzene. 4

What does lecithin do to me?

  • Daily consumption of a soy lecithin capsule (500mg) for 8 weeks resulted in a significant reduction of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in patients with hypercholesterolemia. 5
  • The addition of lecithin at 0.5% of a pig’s diet for 98 days increased total intake of dry matter, body weight, and total weight in female pigs compared to the control group, suggesting lecithin accelerates overall growth performance in pigs. 6

How is lecithin used?
Beyond a thickening agent in food, lecithin is used to enrich fat and protein and improve palletization in animal feed, as well as in plastics, motor lubricants, and gasoline.

Lecithin may do some good for some people in some situations, but as a low-dose food additive, it’s just clutter. An extraction process involving harsh chemicals isn’t exactly reassuring.

Carrageenan

What is carrageenan?
Among the most controversial of all added thickeners, carrageenan is derived from edible red seaweed. The seaweed is dehydrated, ground, sifted and then washed prior to being chemically treated with a hot alkali solution (that is commonly used to manufacture batteries and biodiesel fuel – yep). It goes through a whirl in the centrifuge to filter out any impurities, then is dried once again. 7

What does carrageenan do to me?

  • The addition of carrageenan to the drinking water (50g per liter) of rats and guinea pigs over a 4-week period led to erosions and ulcerations of the intestinal mucosa. 8
  • Carrageenan has been used as a carcinogen to induce tumors in various animal models. 9

How is carrageenan used?
While blacklisted in popular opinion, carrageenan still crops up in food as a thickener. It is also used in firefighting foam and shoe polish.

There is not currently evidence to suggest toxicity in humans, but tests have shown adverse effects in animals. The UK has notably banned carrageenan in jelly confectionary products, as it poses a choking hazard. Just don’t risk it.

Guar Gum

What is guar gum?
Guar gum comes from guar beans (also referred to as Indian cluster beans), native to India and Pakistan. Once picked, the bean is split and dehusked; then the endosperm is milled and screened to obtain the guar gum. 10

What does guar gum do to me?

  • In piglets fed a diet with added guar gum, this was found to lead to an overgrowth of E. coli in the large intestine, stunting overall growth. 11
  • One study showed that the addition of guar gum in milk increased the survival of pathogenic bacteria, even after high heat pasteurization. 12

How is guar gum used?
Guar gum is used as a thickening agent to improve the texture and appearance of liquids and baked goods. It is also sold on its own as a laxative. Beyond ingestion, guar gum is common in hydraulic fracking of natural gas.

Guar gum is known to cause gas and intestinal discomfort in high doses. True, it’s used in relatively small amounts as an emulsifier, but with no real redeeming nutritional function, you should leave it on the shelf.

Gellan Gum

What is gellan gum?
Unlike most thickeners, which are derived from plants, gellan gum is produced by the bacterium Sphingomonase elodea. It is often used as a gelling agent in the production of vegan varieties of gummy candies. 13

What does gellan gum do to me?

  • Supplementation with gellan gum at 5% of a rat’s diet for a month led to abnormalities in the ileal and cecal mucosa of their intestines. 14
  • Supplementation with gellan gum at 30x the level of normal exposure in the diets of 10 humans for 23 days did not have any adverse effects on their blood sugar or lipid levels. 15

How is gellan gum used?
Besides vegan jelly candies, gellan gum is used to keep protein suspended in some non-dairy milks.

True, adverse effects on rats won’t necessarily transfer to humans. High doses may even increase satiety – but we are talking low doses here. There is really nothing beneficial to sing about, so it’s better to stay away.

Locust bean gum (carob bean gum)

What is locust bean gum?
Locust bean gum (also known as carob bean gum) comes from the seeds of carob trees, native to the Mediterranean. The seeds are separated from the pulp, treated with acid to remove the skins, split and milled. The germ is fractured to extract the endosperm, which is milled again to yield a powder. 16

What does locust bean gum do to me?

  • Supplementation with locust bean gum at 5% of a rat’s diet over 2 years did not lead to any significant intestinal damage. 17
  • Healthy individuals and those with familial hypercholesterolemia who consumed 8-30g of locust bean gum over 2 months experienced improvements in blood lipids, specifically lowering total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, as well as increasing the HDL:LDL ratio. 18
  • The addition of locust bean gum flour (9.5 g/1000 kcal) into the diets of 8 healthy adults for one month significantly reduced absorption of calcium, iron and zinc. 19

How is locust bean gum used?
Besides vegan jelly candies, gellan gum is used to keep protein suspended in some non-dairy milks.

This probably won’t hurt you, but you won’t get any benefits from the small amounts found in nut milks either. Also, locust bean gum has been shown to inhibit absorption of vital minerals. There is no good reason to choose this option, so don’t choose it.

Arabic gum (acacia gum)

What is arabic gum?
Arabic gum (also known as acacia gum) comes from the sap of trees of the Acacia species, native to Africa and West Asia. It is soluble in water and a key ingredient in many paints, glues, cosmetics and inks. 20

What does arabic gum do to me?

  • One study in humans found arabic gum stimulating the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. 21
  • Another study in humans given 25g of arabic gum per day over a 3-week period did not lead to any digestive distress. 22

How is arabic gum used?
Arabic gum is a natural adhesive that may be used in postage stamps and letters, and as a binder in fireworks and watercolor paints. In food, it is commonly applied as an emulsifier and to bind sweeteners and flavors.

Arabic gum is one of the better choices, but this is still very relative. If you don’t absolutely need a gum (and you probably don’t), there is still no point. Think of it in terms of licking an envelope…

Are There Gums and Thickeners in Plant Milks?

We have discovered many of these thickening agents – gums, carrageenan, and lecithin – are deployed by some of the biggest players in town: Silk, Almond Breeze, Califia, Pacific, Ripple, Mariani, and the like. However, just because something is popular doesn’t make it right, and we strongly feel that adding such agents would compromise the integrity of our products – both nutritionally and gustatorily.

Why Elmhurst Does Not Use Added Gums, Emulsifiers, or Thickeners

Why elmhurst avoids gums, emulsifiers, and thickeners Why elmhurst avoids gums, emulsifiers, and thickeners

We did not eradicate the harmless findings, nor the benefits of the thickening agents from our list. Rather, they’re disclosed to you in full transparency. However, neither the particularly sinister (that's you, carrageenan) nor less controversial food ones sincerely serve any nutritional or functional purpose in plant-based milks, which is why they’re forbidden from ours. Such ingredients serve a very limited, and fundamentally uninspiring, purpose. They’re simply added to disguise shortcomings in formulation and production processes, elevating inferior water emulsions to heights they don’t deserve.

Notwithstanding, the entire process of creating these thickening agents appears to be more trouble than it is worth, utterly opposing what Elmhurst stands for – not simpler, not better.

Wouldn't we do better to invest our innovation capital in a process for delivering a thick, creamy mouthfeel; not from needless extras, but straight from from nuts, grains, and seeds? This is what you will find in all of Elmhurst’s offerings. No compromises, we promise. Try any of them – including original, unsweetened, and barista plant milks; and special non-dairy creamers – today.

References

  1. Babbar SB, Jain R. Xanthan gum: an economical partial substitute for agar in microbial culture media. Current microbiology. 2006;52(4):287-292.
  2. Daly J, Tomlin J, Read NW. The effect of feeding xanthan gum on colonic function in man: correlation with in vitro determinants of bacterial breakdown. The British journal of nutrition. 1993;69(3):897-902.
  3. Beal J, Silverman B, Bellant J, Young TE, Klontz K. Late onset necrotizing enterocolitis in infants following use of a xanthan gum-containing thickening agent. J Pediatr. 2012;161(2):354-356.
  4. Wikipedia. Lecithin. 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lecithin. Accessed June 20, 2019, 2019.
  5. Mourad AM, de Carvalho Pincinato E, Mazzola PG, Sabha M, Moriel P. Influence of soy lecithin administration on hypercholesterolemia. Cholesterol. 2010;2010:824813-824813.
  6. Saseendran A, Ally K, Gangadevi P, Banakar PS. Effect of supplementation of lecithin and carnitine on growth performance and nutrient digestibility in pigs fed high-fat diet. Vet World. 2017;10(2):149-155
  7. Wikipedia. Carrageenan. 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrageenan. Accessed August 1, 2019, 2019.
  8. Tey SL, Brown RC, Chisholm AW, Delahunty CM, Gray AR, Williams SM. Effects of different forms of hazelnuts on blood lipids and alpha-tocopherol concentrations in mildly hypercholesterolemic individuals. European journal of clinical nutrition. 2011;65(1):117-124.
  9. Tobacman JK. Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments. Environ Health Perspect. 2001;109(10):983-994.
  10. Wikipedia. Guar Gum. 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guar_gum. Accessed June 20, 2019, 2019.
  11. McDonald DE, Pethick DW, Pluske JR, Hampson DJ. Adverse effects of soluble non-starch polysaccharide (guar gum) on piglet growth and experimental colibacillosis immediately after weaning. Research in veterinary science. 1999;67(3):245-250.
  12. Piyasena P, McKellar RC. Influence of guar gum on the thermal stability of Listeria innocua, Listeria monocytogenes, and gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase during high-temperature short-time pasteurization of bovine milk. J Food Prot. 1999;62(8):861-866.
  13. Wikipedia. Gellan Gum. 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gellan_gum. Accessed August 1, 2019, 2019.
  14. Tetsuguchi M, Nomura S, Katayama M, Sugawa-Katayama Y. Effects of curdlan and gellan gum on the surface structure of intestinal mucosa in rats. Journal of nutritional science and vitaminology. 1997;43(5):515-527.
  15. Anderson DM, Brydon WG, Eastwood MA. The dietary effects of gellan gum in humans. Food additives and contaminants. 1988;5(3):237-249.
  16. Wikipedia. Locust bean gum. 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locust_bean_gum. Accessed August 1, 2019, 2019.
  17. Melnick RL, Huff J, Haseman JK, et al. Chronic effects of agar, guar gum, gum arabic, locust-bean gum, or tara gum in F344 rats and B6C3F1 mice. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 1983;21(3):305-311.
  18. Zavoral JH, Hannan P, Fields DJ, et al. The hypolipidemic effect of locust bean gum food products in familial hypercholesterolemic adults and children. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 1983;38(2):285-294.
  19. Harmuth-Hoene AE, Meier-Ploeger A, Leitzmann C. [EFfect of carob bean flour on the resorption of minerals and trace elements in man]. Zeitschrift fur Ernahrungswissenschaft. 1982;21(3):202-213.
  20. Wikipedia. Gum Arabic. 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gum_arabic. Accessed August 1, 2019, 2019.
  21. Calame W, Weseler AR, Viebke C, Flynn C, Siemensma AD. Gum arabic establishes prebiotic functionality in healthy human volunteers in a dose-dependent manner. British Journal of Nutrition. 2008;100(6):1269-1275.
  22. Ross AHM, Eastwood MA, Brydon WG, Anderson JR, Anderson DMW. A study of the effects of dietary gum arabic in humans. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 1983;37(3):368-375.

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