As the demand for gluten-free products and recipes increases, it seems that xanthan gum is suddenly everywhere.
"It's a great way to add stretch to your dough and baked goods in gluten free baking," says Helen Tzouganatos, host of Loving Gluten Free. "It mimics the properties of gluten due to its ‘gummy’ texture, hence the name."
Of course, xanthan gum is not a new thing at all. It was first discovered in the 1950s (which might go a long way in explaining its futuristic name), and was introduced to the food scene in the 1970s.
Get the recipe for Helen's gluten-free cinnamon scrolls here.
How is xanthan gum produced?
While its name suggests that xanthan gum is some kind of futuristic food source, it's actually entirely natural. It's a hydrocolloid (a substance that forms a gel in water) polysaccharide - or complex carbohydrate - which is fermented from the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris.
This happens in the presence of a sucrose and glucose (sugar) growth medium. Which sounds very science boffin, but is really an organic process that just happens to have very scientific names.
The gum is purified before being dried, ground to a powder then added to everything from salad dressing to ice cream, toothpaste, paint, cosmetics and wallpaper glue
In fact, X. campestris may be hard at work in your garden right now... something you might want to check on. It's the bacterial species that is responsible for the insidious black rot in crucifers and brassicas like cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli. It basically turns growing veggies to black, rotten mush. Which isn't exactly the most appealing xanthan gum fact, but full disclosure, right?
Find the Loving Gluten Free recipe here.
What can you use it for?
Rest assured that by the time X. campestris results in xanthan gum, it's been well and truly killed by heat. Not to mention that the gum is purified before being dried, ground to a powder then added to everything from salad dressing to ice cream, toothpaste, paint, cosmetics and wallpaper glue.
The reason xanthan gum is such a jack-of-all-trades lies with its ability to stabilize and thicken other ingredients.
The reason xanthan gum is such a jack-of-all-trades lies with its ability to stabilize and thicken other ingredients while still allowing them to flow freely. Recently it's being used extensively in this capacity to mimic the role of gluten in gluten-free recipes.
Most commercial gluten-free breads, cakes, ice cream, salad dressings, yoghurts and sauces will likely contain E415 as an ingredient. It essentially provides the 'glue' that's often missing when gluten is removed.
Here's how you can use an excellent tempura batter to lock in the magic of springtime vegetables - look out for the crunch!
Xanthan gum to the rescue
As well as being able to stabilise, emulsify and go undercover as gluten, xanthan gum may contribute some noteworthy health benefits.
"Several studies have shown xantham gum’s ability to reduce blood sugar levels," says Joel Feren, Accredited Practising Dietitian and founder of The Nutrition Guy. "This is most likely related to the gum being a soluble fibre and therefore being able to slow down both digestion and the rate at which glucose enters the bloodstream. Nevertheless, it could be useful for those with diabetes."
There's also emerging evidence that suggests that consuming the versatile gum may help with weight loss and cholesterol reduction. Very promising, but Feren notes that there are still plenty of gaps in the research.
"These effects may be attributed to it being a soluble fibre rather than it having a unique biological property," he cautions.
Powder for the pantry
You can also buy xanthan gum in powdered form for adding to recipes at home. It can be substituted when a thickening agent that contains gluten is listed: namely flour and cornflour. It can also be added to boost gluten-free flours like coconut, buckwheat and rice flours. It will add extra elasticity and bulk to all of these flours, helping them mimic the texture of wheat flours.
"It's quite strong," cautions Tzouganatos. "A little goes a long way, so be conservative when working with it. I only add half a teaspoon to my buckwheat and chia bread to help it pop."
A small pinch of xanthan gum will also add lightness to foams, froths and meringues, and prevent homemade mayonnaise and sauces from separating. Yup, all those amazing looking foams that top chefs seemingly conjure out of thin air are most likely being conjured by xanthan gum.
Try this gluten-free pita and lamb fatoush here.
Is xanthan gum safe?
Xanthan gum is approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) as safe to consume and called xanthan gum or E415 on product ingredient lists.
"The only notable side effect from eating xantham gum is an upset stomach," says Feren. "This has largely been seen in people who consume a large amount, more than 15 grams a day. Keep in mind that a typical person will consume less than one gram a day..."
Something to consider is the wide-variety of growth mediums used in the gum's fermentation process. The sugars needed to produce xanthan gum are derived from sources like corn, soy, wheat and whey. It's often difficult to trace which medium was used to produce the gum, so anyone with an allergy, and certainly those with coelic disease should be cautious. It's best to consult your health practitioner for advice on whether products containing xanthan gum are safe for you to use and consume.
It's also worth keeping in mind that because the growth medium used to produce xanthan gum could be whey, or even egg whites, it may not suitable for vegans. Some manufacturers will disclose which ingredients were used to produce the gum, so carefully check the ingredients list.
Catch Helen Tzouganatos whipping up mouth-watering gluten-free treats on Loving Gluten Free, 6:30pm Sundays on SBS Food and later on SBS On Demand.
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