Gums, Thickeners, and Emulsifiers in Food: Are They Really Bad?
If you’ve every check out the ingredient lists of most mainstream plant milks, you’ve probably noticed words like “gum” and “carrageenan.” These are the added thickeners and emulsifiers some brands add to fake their smooth, creamy texture. Those junk additives might be made from plants, but they’re anything but natural. Not only are ingredients like guar gum and carrageenan completely unnecessary, they can cause bloating, gas and other serious digestive issues.
What Is a Food Thickening Agent?
The scientific definition of food thickening agents is: polysaccharides (long-chain sugar molecules) used by the food industry to help emulsify, thicken, stabilize, and/or bind compounds in processed foods. Simply put, these additives create a fake creamy texture and prevent natural separation.
Common examples are: guar gum, gellan gum, carob bean gum, arabic gum, xanthan gum, carrageenan and cellulose gum.
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 might be!
- Are they bad? As you’ll learn below, some of these additives are worse than others, but all of them are unnecessary. The worst ones you wouldn’t want to touch – let alone drink.
- Are they safe? The FDA approves many thickeners and emulsifiers. So, technically yes. But there are enough concerns that we like to stay away from them completely.
- Are they natural? Yes and no. While they come from plants, many gums are ultra-processed.
- How do they affect my body? Studies have shown interesting effects on animals and humans, ranging from digestive discomfort and bloating to increased risk of infection.
Generally, gums, emulsifiers and thickeners are a sign that plant-based foods are low quality. There is a big difference between an almond milk with 1g of protein and 12 hard-to-pronounce ingredients (some of which prevent nutrient absorption) vs. an almond milk with 5g of protein and just two simple 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.
What is xanthan gum?
Xanthan gum comes from the Xanthomonas campestris, a bacteria grown in sugar from wheat, corn, soy, and/or dairy. This bacteria ferments the sugar into xanthan gum, which is extracted 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.
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.
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 before 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 and is dried once again.4
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 lining.5
- Carrageenan has been used as a carcinogen to induce tumors in various animal models.6
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 any 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.
What is guar gum?
Guar gum comes from guar beans native to India and Pakistan. Once picked, the bean is split, husked, milled and screened to obtain the guar gum.6
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.8
- One study showed that the addition of guar gum in milk increased the survival of contagious bacteria, even after high heat pasteurization.9
How is guar gum used?
Guar gum is used as a thickening agent to improve the texture and appearance of drinks and baked goods. It is also sold on its own as a laxative. Beyond food and beverages, guar gum is commonly used in the hydrofracking 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 nutritional value, it might be better to just avoid it completely.
What is gellan gum?
Unlike most thickeners, which are derived from plants, gellan gum is produced by the bacteria Sphingomonase elodea. It is often used as a gelling agent in the production of vegan varieties of gummy candies.10
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 their digestive tract.11
- However, 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.12
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. But there really aren’t any benefits to write home about either. It’s probably 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, milled, fractured and milled again to into a powder.13
What does locust bean gum do to me?
- 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.14
- 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.15
How is locust bean gum used?
Non-food uses for locust bean gum include shoe polish, insecticides, and cigarettes.
This probably won’t hurt you, but you won’t get any benefits from the small amounts found in nut milk either. Also, locust bean gum has been shown to prevent the absorption of vital nutrients. There is no good reason to choose plant milks with locust bean gum.
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 a key ingredient in many paints, glues, cosmetics and inks.16
What does arabic gum do to me?
- One study in humans found arabic gum stimulating the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria and lactobacilli.17
- Another study in humans given 25g of arabic gum per day over a 3-week period did not lead to any digestive distress.18
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 used as an emulsifier to prevent the separation of sweeteners and flavors.
Arabic gum is one of the better choices, but if there’s a gum-free option to choose from, there’s still no point. Plus, it’s in envelope glue.
Are There Gums and Thickeners in Plant Milks?
Many of these thickening agents are used by some of the biggest players in town: Silk, Almond Breeze, Califia, Pacific, Ripple and so on. However, just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Why settle for fake creamy plant milks when there’s a more nutritious, naturally smooth and creamy option made with just a few simple ingredients?
Why Elmhurst Does Not Use Added Gums, Emulsifiers, or Thickeners
Gums, thickeners and emulsifiers are really just added to disguise poor quality plant milks.
At Elmhurst, we believe in making plant milks the way they’re meant to be made— with up to 4x more nuts in every carton, so you get more creamy, nutritious plant-based goodness in every sip. That’s the Elmhurst difference. No compromises, we promise. Try any of our unique varieties – Unsweetened, Lightly Sweetened, Barista Editions or Oat Creamers – to taste how smooth and creamy just a few simple ingredients can be.
- Babbar SB, Jain R. Xanthan gum: an economical partial substitute for agar in microbial culture media. Current microbiology. 2006;52(4):287-292.
- 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.
- 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.
- Wikipedia. Carrageenan. 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrageenan. Accessed August 1, 2019, 2019.
- 5. 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.
6 Tobacman JK. Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments. Environ Health Perspect. 2001;109(10):983-994.
- 7. Guar Gum. 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guar_gum. Accessed June 20, 2019, 2019.
- 8. 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.
- 9. 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.
- Wikipedia. Gellan Gum. 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gellan_gum. Accessed August 1, 2019, 2019.
- 11. 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.
- 12. Anderson DM, Brydon WG, Eastwood MA. The dietary effects of gellan gum in humans. Food additives and contaminants. 1988;5(3):237-249.
- Wikipedia. Locust bean gum. 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locust_bean_gum. Accessed August 1, 2019, 2019.
- 14. Harmuth-Hoene AE, Meier-Ploeger A, Leitzmann [EFfect of carob bean flour on the resorption of minerals and trace elements in man]. Zeitschrift fur Ernahrungswissenschaft. 1982;21(3):202-213.
- 15. 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.
- 16. Gum Arabic. 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gum_arabic. Accessed August 1, 2019, 2019.
- 17. Calame W, Weseler AR, Viebke C, Flynn C, Siemensma Gum arabic establishes prebiotic functionality in healthy human volunteers in a dose-dependent manner. British Journal of Nutrition. 2008;100(6):1269-1275.
- 18. 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.