By Ingrid Eissfeldt, owner, Artisan Bread Organic (ABO)
I wonder how many people really know what xanthan gum is. Let me enlighten you. Xanthan gum – also known as ‘E415’ – is produced by the fermentation of glucose or sucrose from corn, wheat, soy or whey with the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris (the bacterium responsible for black rot on cabbage). It was discovered by a research team at the United States Department of Agriculture, and is largely used to thicken drilling mud in the oil industry to prevent blowouts. Not conducive to raising your appetite for that early morning slice of gluten-free toast you picked up from the supermarket or local grocery store, hey? Nevertheless, xanthan gum was approved for use in foods after extensive animal testing for toxicity in 1968.
I’m not so sure they envisaged back then that by 2012 we would be consuming vast quantities in the western world in gluten-free breads and a myriad of other products.
The gluten-free myth
The excuse for using xanthan gum in bread is that gluten-free bread is apparently too crumbly. Think about it this way. Who hasn’t struggled to cook nice fluffy rice? Rice is gluten-free, yet there’s nothing crumbly about a bowl of cooked rice! Is it possible that we’ve been brainwashed into believing bread without gluten won’t hold together? Is it not more a case that if you want to stick together cheap starches from potato and corn and methylcellulose (or sawdust to me and you) that you’ll need gum, instead of delicious gluten-free grains, beans or pulses that Mother Nature provides? In the quest to make bread ever bigger and fluffier and stay soft for days, a whole host of enzymes are required. Enzymes are classed as ‘processing aids’ and not ‘ingredients’, which basically means they’re not on the label. To make such ‘doughy’ breads, they need a lot of artificial help, or ‘glue’ to hold it all together. Despite all that gunk you can still often find huge holes in breads made with xanthan gum, and if you hold up a slice by one corner the slice can easily fall apart.
Learning about the art of making natural gluten-free bread begins with an understanding of how the starch molecules in naturally gluten-free grains, beans and peas absorb water during the baking process. This was common knowledge hundreds of years ago. English peasants in the Middle Ages ate pea or bean bread for protein when they couldn’t afford meat. When they felt particularly affluent they fed this to their horses, where it was commonly known as ‘horse bread’.
Headaches, acid reflux, weight loss!
Just one single teaspoon of xanthan gum will turn a glass of water into thick glue. Add a spoon of flour and the result is even thicker goo! Think about what xanthan gum can do to the human digestive system if it can turn a glass of water and flour into thick gunk! Just imagine coating your oesophagus (food pipe) with glue. Acid reflux could easily become a problem if the sphincter muscle at the base of your oesophagus can’t open and close properly. Considering that the intestinal villi are inflamed or missing in Coeliac patients, how is the body supposed to absorb water and nutrients from food when it’s coated with thick gunk? Would that not result in headaches and weight loss too? The recommended amount on a tube of xanthan gum for baking is two teaspoons of xanthan gum for one loaf! Perish the thought.
The UK’s Daily Telegraph compared Genius Bread (large scale manufactured bread found in UK supermarkets) to ABO Bread on 20th January 2011. In the discussion that followed a number of people concluded that xanthan gum was causing them heartburn. Genius would not give any information, when Rose Prince, the journalist, asked whether they use enzymes to keep the bread soft. You can read it for yourself.
Wendy Cohen reports on her website that some people are allergic to xanthan gum, with symptoms of intestinal gripes, diarrhoea, temporary high blood pressure and migraines. The same symptoms are reported by Coeliacs when ingesting gluten.
“Avoid generic xanthan gum if you’re very sensitive to gluten”, says UK Food Standards Agency.
Easier said than done. The substrate is not listed on the label and more worryingly the culture medium used to produce it may contain wheat, corn or soy — and that doesn’t have to be listed either, or at least here in the UK. To add insult to injury, xanthan gum is sold in health food stores as a ‘natural’ gum! It’s unsurprising then that people regularly report allergic reactions to xanthan gum containing products that mimic those of coeliac disease or wheat/gluten sensitivity.
Want to know more? Here’s Ingrid in person on the dangers of xanthan gum in gluten-free bread.
But remember it’s not just gluten-free products you want to be careful of. Many other processed food and personal care products are now using xantham gum as a cheap thickener.
The message is clear – check the label before you buy!