If you don’t know what food gums are, keep reading, because we aren’t talking about chewing gum. Anyone who’s conscious about what they eat knows that healthy eating means choosing clean food items. Most doctors, nutritionists, and diet gurus will tell you to read the labels of the processed foods you buy. Prioritize products where you can pronounce and recognize everything on the list of ingredients.
It’s fairly straightforward advice. If an item in your grocery is branded as healthy and organic, but it contains many ingredients or terms you’ve never heard of, you should put it back on the shelf. But here’s the catch–healthy dairy-free ice-creams, milk alternatives, and gluten-free products that have simple labels usually contain one ingredient that may leave you feeling baffled: Food gums.
When it comes to food gums, there are many varieties such as guar gum, xanthan gum, carrageenan, locust bean gum, soy lecithin, etc. One or two of these gums could pop up in an otherwise healthy set of the ingredients list. If you’re supposed to avoid eating items you’re not familiar with, then should healthy items with gums like whole-wheat spaghetti, chia pancake mix, greek yogurt, or soy ice cream automatically be banned from your shopping list? Find out more about food gums below, so you’ll understand what you’re buying as the consumer and how these ingredients can affect your health:
What Exactly are Food Gums?
According to dietitian Kim Melton, RD, gums or emulsifiers are used as binding agents to help products get thicker. Scientifically, these thickening agents are known as polysaccharides. They are long-chain sugar molecules or soluble fibers used in the food manufacturing industry to do the following for processed foods:
- Bind compounds
However, don’t be fooled by the word soluble fiber in relation to food gums. In this case, the primary ingredient used has been intensively mined and processed from the original source resulting in complex formulations. Hence even if most food gums may be plant-derived, they look nothing like the original plant source. Therefore, they are still not the best applications from nature compared to fresh fruits or vegetables.
Though gums are really not utilized for their nutritional value, they serve a purpose which is to make inferiorly processed products thick. These thickening agents make food items turn out to have good texture and consistency, making them more palatable. However, because of the severe processing, some gums are known to cause digestive issues in people with sensitivities. That being said, all the food gums used by manufacturers for products sold on grocery shelves are considered safe and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
What are the Different Food Gums?
But here’s the thing, unless you’re consuming whole food exclusively and cooking all your food from scratch, you are bound to encounter food gums in your diet. This includes whatever you buy from the grocery, eat in a restaurant, or have delivered via takeout. Even if you follow a plant-based or organic diet, you’re not exempted from this because gums could be in your healthy muffin mixes, protein powders, sauces, mixes, etc.
Most food gums are naturally-derived from complex carbohydrates. Check out the typical carbs based food gums found in store-bought products:
- Locust bean gum is extracted from the carob tree
- Guar gum comes from a legume called cluster bean
- Xanthan gum is produced by a bacteria when it ferments simple sugar
- Carrageenan hails from seaweed
Another frequently used food gum is called lecithin. It is naturally extracted from sunflower seeds, soybeans, and egg yolks. Biochemically, this is not a complex carbohydrate but a type of fat. It has a tail that attracts fat and a head that draws water. Hence, this ingredient is very handy for creating a strong cohesive force in mixed foods.
Notably, other types of food gums or emulsifiers are synthetic in nature. These compounds are made in industrial labs and not extracted directly from plants. Examples of these gums are polysorbate 80, carboxymethylcellulose or cellulose gum, or mono and diglycerides. If you want to ascribe and stick with a more wholesome diet, avoid these synthetic gums.
Should You Be Worried About Consuming Food Gums?
In the olden days, people did not read labels and just bought what was sold on the shelves. But now, in the era of digital information, there is a huge outcry about what’s being added to food. Natural food sections have expanded along with the consumer concern over the ingredient list of each product. This has resulted in extreme worry over the inclusion of food gums and if foods that contain them are harmful to human health.
Gums are not created equal. There are mildly tolerable gums and those that you should completely avoid, especially if you have sensitivities because they promote inflammation and trigger disease activity. Notably, ingredients do not behave the same way in each individual’s body. Some people are just more sensitive to particular foods, which can cause irritable bowel syndrome, bloating, upset stomach, and the like. Some research even attests that a subset of gums could have beneficial properties like the ones below:
- Guar Gum: This is classified as a soluble fiber and can help regulate bowel movements. Notably, this is the primary ingredient of most fiber supplements marketed to help with constipation. It is also said to help maintain healthy blood sugar levels and lower bad cholesterol. Studies on animals suggest that this has prebiotic and antiinflammatory properties for your gut. Hence, among all the food gums, this is one of the more acceptable ones you should not fear.
- Xanthan Gum: This ingredient is said to help reduce high blood sugar, especially when you consume it with a carbohydrate-ladened meal. It supposedly slows down your body’s absorption of sugar, allowing them to enter your bloodstream gradually.
- Lecithin: As noted above, this is naturally found in eggs. In fact, lecithin is sold as a dietary supplement that contains choline. Studies say your body needs choline to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps with brain function and development. It regulates intelligence, memory, and even mood. This is also required for synthesizing DNA. Moreover, lecithin can be efficiently metabolized by the body and helps restore the gut’s mucosal barrier, and reduces inflammation.
That being said, other types of food gums offer no data from human studies that show adverse health outcomes. Some only studied the ingredients with animal models, particularly those who conduct research on inflammatory bowel disease. Again, there is no conclusive evidence that these gums suggest toxicity to humans, even the synthetically manufactured ones. The bottom line is most processed foods contain small amounts of these ingredients. And they have been approved by the FDA, which is why you can still find products containing these gums on supermarket shelves.
Making Healthier Choices Matter
Although no study will concretely suggest that you are better off strictly avoiding these ingredients, it is still prudent to consume food gums occasionally. But since anything with food gums is considered processed food, now is the time to think about making simple swaps to reduce the amount of food in your diet that contains these additives.
People following a dairy-free or gluten-free diet may be unknowingly consuming a lot of food gums in the packaged food alternatives in the market. For example, you have daily staples like plant-based milk, low-carb books, or gluten-free pasta that may contain more of these food gums.
Hence, take time to compare your options when it comes to convenience foods that you frequently buy from the store. For instance, natural tortillas in the fridge section may contain less cellulose than their counterpart on the non-refrigerated shelf since non-refrigerated variants may contain more preservatives to be stable in room temp. Similarly, natural premium ice cream could less likely contain gums than the reduced-fat or carbs version.
Staying proactive like this can help you make healthier choices and can help you from fretting over the occasional intake of food gums. Moreover, shifting your diet toward simple food that has not been heavily processed is more ideal. If you truly want to stay proactive about healthy eating, consider taking a CircleDNA test. This is the world’s most comprehensive DNA test, which provides you with hundreds of health reports, including your sensitivity to food additives. Apart from that, you will also get nutrition and diet advice based on your unique DNA.