The Truth about Gums and Emulsifiers
Our mission at Nutrition for Longevity is to provide you with clean, nourishing meals made from whole food ingredients. We know our clients strive to eat minimally processed foods whenever they can and we love that they turn to us when they need a quick no-prep delicious meal.
In today’s busy world, it’s nearly impossible not to rely on some ready-made convenience foods, but often times these products use food additives to help make products taste better or have a longer shelf life. The question is are these additives safe and healthy to consume? Read on for the answers.
What are gums and emulsifiers
Gums are a type of polysaccharide that occurs naturally in plants. They are vicious, sticky substances that can be used as a thickening or emulsifying agent in food. In addition to their culinary uses, gums have also been traditionally used for their medicinal properties.
Recent research has shown that many gums can also positively impact gut health by modulating the microbiome.
We’ll dive in to the research behind a few of the most commonly used gums and emulsifiers so you can decide if these are products you can continue to consume or avoid.
Guar gum is a polysaccharide made from a legume called the guar bean. It is commonly used as a thickener and stabilizing agent in many plant-based foods. Of the many types of gums out there, guar gum has the most substantial research, especially in terms of its benefits on the GI tract.
Guar gum is commonly referred to as a prebiotic due to its stool bulking properties that feed the good bacteria of the gut and support the intestinal microbiome. This is the collection of bacteria that live in the gut and play an important role in digestion and immunity.
In addition to helping to feed and diversify the gut microbiome, guar gum may help to prevent constipation by increasing the amount of water in the stool and promoting regular bowel movements. There is even some research that suggests it may help regulate blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels.
Overall, guar gum is a safe, natural way to add fiber to your diet and potentially improve your gut health.
Gellan gum is another type of water-soluble polysaccharide produced by fermenting sugar with the bacteria Sphingomonas elodea. It is commonly used to stabilize gels in desserts, jellies, and jams. It’s often used as a replacement for gelatin in many vegan items since it is of plant-based origin
Gellan gum is a popular gelling agent because it is effective in very small quantities and is not heat sensitive. It is generally considered a very safe food item but, like with many other gums, can cause GI distress when consumed in large quantities.
Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide created during the fermentation process of sugar when a type of bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris is created. The goo-like substance created is then formed into a powder by adding alcohol. Once the powder is added to a cold or hot liquid, it easily disperses, creating a viscous solution that is stable to acidic solutions and varying temperatures, making it an excellent food stabilizer.
Xanthan gum is found in a variety of self-care, food, and everyday house items, including paints, lotions, shampoos, baked goods, gluten-free products, and low-fat foods. Although more research must be done to further investigate specific health benefits, like other gums, it could potentially lower both blood sugar and cholesterol due to its viscous nature in the stomach.
Large quantities of xanthan gum can be problematic for some. It may lead to loose or more frequent stools and even has the potential to cause GI discomfort when consumed in large quantities. If you follow a low FODMAP you should consider avoiding it due to the potential GI issues.
Overall, xanthan gum is safe to consume in moderation with a balanced diet.
Agar is a gel-like substance sourced from a specific type of red algae. It is commonly used in vegan baking since it is both flavorless and odorless. In order for Agar to set, it requires heating to a temperature of 185 or higher. In certain cultures, Agar gum has been used for decades as a weight loss agent because it is consumed as a gel but bulks up in the stomach, which increases satiety and fullness. Agar also stimulates the intestines and can be treated as a natural laxative. It is important when consuming Agar gum to take it with adequate water to prevent bowel obstructions
With its versatile gel-like substance, like other common gums, Agar is used in non-food items such as paper products and fabric.. It has been shown to be a safe alternative to animal-based gels when used in food or baking.
Locust Bean Gum
Despite its name, locust bean gum is not made from locusts, but from the seeds of the carob tree. It is a non-digestible fiber and has the ability to absorb liquid and turn it into a gel. This characteristic makes it a great thickener, but it can also be used as an emulsifier or stabilizer.
Since locust bean gum is a non-digestible fiber it can offer some of the benefits that food-based fibers offer. Studies have shown that it can help to lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and that it may play a role in digestive health. It has also been studied for its role in helping with digestive disorders including reflux in infants.
Also knowns as gum Arabic, acacia gum is a plant-derived food additive commonly used to thicken products like sweets, deserts, and beverages. It’s been considered a safe ingredient by the FDA since the 1970s and the European Food Safety Authority found no concerns with it causing cancer or DNA damage.
Due to its high fiber content, acacia gum may offer some interesting health benefits. Studies have found that it can have a positive impact on our gut microbiome and can decrease body fat and BMI in healthy women. One way it can aid with weight loss is by helping to keep you feeling full and reducing your calorie intake.
In the past few years, there has been a lot of controversy about carrageenan and the potential health risks it may pose. You may be wondering, is carrageen natural, and what are products with carrageenan in it?
Carrageenan is made from an edible form of seaweed, and it’s used as a thickener and emulsifier in many yogurts, non-dairy milks, and meat products. The controversy started a few decades back when animal studies linked carrageenan to inflammation of the gut, yet since 1959 carrageenan has continued to be considered a GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) food additive in the US. In 2016 the concern around carrageen triggered the National Organic Standards Board to remove carrageenan from their list of approved ingredients, so no foods in the US containing carrageenan can be labeled as USDA organic.
Our bodies naturally produce lecithin, and it’s made commercially available as both a dietary supplement and food additive. Lecithin is most usually derived from sunflower seeds, eggs, or soybeans. So if you follow a plant-based diet and want to know is lecithin vegan, it depends on the source.
Besides using it as a thickening agent or lecithin emulsifier in foods, there are a number of health benefits that lecithin offers. Probably the most well-known is lecithin’s ability to lower cholesterol. It might also help to improve digestive issues and Alzheimer’s disease.
All food additives, including gums and emulsifiers, must be approved for use by the FDA, however, that does not mean that there are no health concerns with consuming processed foods. When it comes to gums and emulsifiers, most are safe and may even offer some benefits. Most of the benefits stem from the fact that they are made from indigestible fibers, but for people with GI conditions, this may be problematic. If you are sensitive to these ingredients it's best to avoid them, but for the rest of us, there is likely little risk from consuming them in small quantities.