Xanthan gum, the newest rage to hit the market since kale and cauliflower, isn’t used as pizza crust or in a salad; instead, it’s an ingredient most often called for when baking. A replacement for gluten when binding ingredients is necessary, especially when making breads, this plant-based, gluten-free agent is known for the mysterious way that it transits through the human body. It also transits through pipelines, cleaning them out and improving performance. So what does that tell you? Yes – studies have shown that a tiny amount of xanthan gum aids in digestion by pushing food through the human system. Due to its rise in popularity, xanthan gum has transited from health food stores to local supermarkets, making it easier to find and use.
Xanthan Gum’s Curious Past
To understand what xanthan gum is, you have to know how it’s made. Have you ever seen a head of cauliflower with brown spots studding the top, or any leafy vegetable that looks as if it has mold growing on it? Well, it actually is mold. Those spots are a bacterium with a Latin name you’ll gloss over, but they’re commonly known as “black rot.” And it’s black rot that is used when sucrose and glucose are fermented to create xanthan gum.
The result is a biopolymer, another fancy word, but it means that xantham gum is ideal to thicken water-based combinations and to use when a gel is needed. In ice cream, it prevents crystals from forming while it sits in your freezer. But its most important use is in gluten-free or keto cooking. It mimics some of the properties of wheat flour, making breads and other flour-based products possible in a both diets.
Shopping for Xanthan Gum
Now that xanthan gum has made the pilgrimage from health food drinks and powders to popular use, it’s recognized as a grocery item and found everywhere from big box grocery stores to specialty markets. It’s pricey and often sold in large quantities, but online distributors sell the product in small packages.
Look for the gluten-free aisle in your local store first. Then move to the baking aisle. If you still haven’t found it, try a health food store. When all else fails and your internet is down, move on to xanthan gum substitutes.
Xanthan Gum Substitutes
The names for xanthan gum substitutes are as exotic as the ingredient they’re replacing. Bakers who struggle with gluten-free cooking know that without the glue of gluten, biscuits, bread, cupcakes and cakes will turn out flat, dry and even hard. Baked goods need a binder to hold everything together.
Unlike xanthan gum, guar gum is extracted from guar beans, not sugar. Low in calories and high in fiber, guar gum is found in everything from cheese to ice cream and even in gluten-free rice flour. It’s been known to relieve constipation because of its high fiber content and promotes digestive health by acting as a prebiotic.
Reports of negative health effects caused by high doses of guar gum means that the FDA has set specific usage amounts for specific foods. Bakery products can only contain 0.35% guar gum and vegetable juices top out at 2%.
Bodybuilders favor psyllium husk powder; the fiber helps them maintain their digestive health. Bakers also like it for its binding ability and improvement to the quality of their baked products. One study found that breads containing it experienced a higher rise and more volume. They also retained moisture when psyllium husk powder was added, even when combined with flour.
Chia and flax seeds also demonstrate binding properties, but they’re difficult to process and use for everyday baking. Agar, or agar-agar, powder and gelatin are additional substitutes, but gelatin is not vegan or vegetarian friendly as it’s made from animals. Agar is a seaweed derivative but is temperamental when used in baking as too much can render your bakery products too moist.