Food Gums, Thickeners and Emulsifiers: Are They Safe?

Guar gum, carrageenan gum, gellan gum, cellulose gum… If you study labels like we do, you’ve probably seen these gums as ingredients in your coconut milk, icecream, coffee creamer, protein bars, muffins and more.

Food scientists are always exploring ways to make food taste better, last longer, and behave in a way other than how it normally does. Food gums and other additives alter natural foods in countless ways.

They change the texture of food. Some gums act as “emulsifiers,” which means it helps keep food moist and prevents ingredients from separating while sitting on store shelves.


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. Oh and don't be fooled by a pure-sounding word like "fiber." These agents still have to be intensively mined from their sources, then blended into complex formulations barely resembling the source ingredient.

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.

Let’s start by taking a look at some of the common gums that we find in our foods today, starting with 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.

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.

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).

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.


Xanthan gum is not advised for infants (possibly due to infants’ underdeveloped digestive capacity).

Those prone to low blood sugar might want to avoid high amounts of xanthan gum due to its capacity to lower blood sugar.

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.


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.

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.


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.

What does carrageenan do to me?

The addition of carrageenan to the drinking water of rats and guinea pigs over a 4-week period led to erosions and ulcerations of the intestinal mucosa.

Carrageenan has been used as a carcinogen to induce tumors in various animal models.

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 evidence to give one pause, as carrageenan has been found to cause inflammation and even cell death in the intestinal wall.

Even though carrageenan has been vindicated of causing cancer as well as the extreme inflammation attributed to poligeenan, evidence exists to suggest proceeding with caution.

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.


What is guar gum? Guar gum comes from guar 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.

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.

One study showed that the addition of guar gum in milk increased the survival of pathogenic bacteria, even after high heat pasteurization.

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.


Because guar gum absorbs liquid, it’s important to drink enough fluid if eaten in high doses as a supplement. Guar gum can swell and cause a blockage in the esophagus or intestines. The FDA has banned guar gum as a weight loss pill for this reason.

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.


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.

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.

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


The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not given gellan gum the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status – as it has guar gum – but it approves its use in foods.

The medium used to culture gellan gum may be problematic for sensitive individuals. hose who get strong reactions to whey or corn may also react to foods with gellan gum. So either do some sleuthing to find out how the gellan gum used was cultured, or avoid products with this additive.

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.


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.

What does locust bean gum do to me?

The addition of locust bean gum flour into the diets of 8 healthy adults for one month significantly reduced absorption of calcium, iron and zinc.

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.


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.

What does arabic gum do to me?

Gum arabic may cause digestive issues for some people, particularly when used in large amounts. Potential gum arabic side effects can include flatulence/gas, bloating, unfavorable viscous sensation in the mouth, early morning nausea, mild diarrhea and other types of indigestion. To limit side effects, keep your intake well below the max daily dose of about 30 grams per day.

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…


We have discovered many of these thickening agents – gums, carrageenan, and lecithin – are deployed by some of the biggest players in town. 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.


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 we stand for.

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 Good Kind's offerings. No compromises, we promise. Try any of them today!

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