To gum or not to gum

If you’re new to gluten-free baking, chances are you’re still trying to create gluten-free versions of your favourite recipes AND you’re trying to get them to still taste and feel the same as the original. 

Rule #1 of gluten-free baking: Stop. Just don’t do it.  

Now regardless of whether you’re new to the gluten-free kitchen or a total veteran, you would have heard of the infamous gum brothers by now – Xanthan and Guar. In fact, the older one, Xanthan, is often touted as ‘the gluten-free baker's secret weapon.’ You’ve probably been both confused and concerned like I was when I – a baker of almost 20 years – first had to go off wheat and dairy now almost 7 years ago. Are these gums really mandatory members of the gluten-free kitchen? Are they your friend? There's a locust bean gum? And perhaps most importantly…WHAT ON EARTH ARE THESE THINGS?

That love-hate relationship with gluten

Before we get into that we need to understand why gums are even a feature of gluten-free cooking and baking. And to do that we need to first look at gluten. Recall that gluten refers to the natural proteins found in wheat, barley, rye (mainly) which, thanks to their stretchiness when activated by liquid and kneading/mixing, play a critical role as a binder that helps food maintain their shape. (Say what?) To put it simply, gluten is the reason you can stretch out a piece of dough without it breaking or tearing. It’s also the reason your cakes and pastries are soft and fluffy. So when you remove it, you need something else to do its job. Enter the gums.

What do wallpaper glue and salad dressing have in common? Xanthan gum.

Outside of baking, xanthan gum is used extensively in the food industry as a stabilizer and emulsifier (fancy for ‘prevents ingredients from separating’) and as a thickener (this one’s in the name). Guar gum is also used as an additive in baked goods to magically increase dough yield, create more resilience and improve texture and shelf life (clearly a bestie of the food manufacturing industry). According to Bob's Red Mill, "guar gum has eight times the thickening power as cornstarch." Yowza. 

Outside of food, xanthan gum is found in personal care and industrial products, many of which have been linked to respiratory and digestive problems (yet the FDA has approved it as a food additive with no limitations on the amount of xanthan gum a food can contain. Hmmm.)

What else can I tell you?

Xanthan gum is a lab-made product and (despite that), is a soluble fiber i.e. carbs that your body cannot break down. Instead, they absorb water and turn into a gel-like substance in your digestive system, which slows digestion. Some studies have also shown that since it is used to bind the molecules of food together, xanthan gum can cement these molecules so well that the food is harder to break down in the body. Others report the same kind of reaction with xanthan gum that we might experience with gluten. Guar gum, by the way, while touted as a high-fiber product, has been even associated with gastrointestinal upset in some people.

Great. Just what those of us who have food allergies and sensitivities need.

By the way, neither provides any calories or nutrients either.

And none of the above surprises me when you consider what xanthan / guar gum are and how they’re made. These are probably two of the most hyper-processed products on the shelves these days. Don’t get me wrong – I am not against food processing, oh no no. Without food processing, we’d be walking into supermarkets with raw food (not good for our tummies) or empty supermarket shelves (also bad for our tummies).  

Xanthan gum is made from fermented corn sugar broken down by a plant bacteria called Xanthomonas Campestris (hence the name) into a gooey gum-like (surprise!) substance. This is dried and turned into a powder in about at least six steps in a lab. Guar gum, also called guaran, comes from the seed of a bean-like plant native to tropical Asia, sometimes referred to as the Indian tree. The husks are removed from the guar seeds and the seeds are milled into a powder. Sounds friendlier but let’s face it – our bodies, especially our gut, simply weren’t built to digest additives like these.

So, friend or foe?

I suppose one could argue that the jury is still out on this given how many of the studies I’ve looked at have been deemed ‘not conclusive,’ ‘statistically insignificant’ or ‘having too small a sample’ – all except one incident report involving infants. Nope, xanthan gum is definitely not recommended for infants. Which should get you thinking.

The best way to know if gums have an effect on you is a good ol’ elimination diet. But hey, if you’re already suffering from allergies and sensitivities and have an irritable gut, why risk it? I mean, life’s hard enough as it is for us! 

And this is why NONE of the products developed by Oh My Goodness! contain any gums – we’re here to serve those with allergies and sensitivities or those that just want to eat better, after all. And we’d never do unto others what we don't want done unto us.


Founder, Oh My Goodness!

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