Food additives such as gums, thickeners, and stabilizers are incredibly common in not just daily foods but are also found in supplements, candies, mints, and beverages and they may impact your digestion. When food manufacturers make gluten-free, dairy-free, and low-fat products, they want the consumer to still experience the same mouth feel and taste that the real thing has. That’s when more of these ingredients start to creep into production.
Several of these ingredients are indigestible to humans which means they makes their way further down the digestive tract where the bacteria in the colon feed on them. This gives rise to short-chain fatty acids, which we know have extensive possible health benefits, but this can also cause digestive upset for some individuals.
Overall, the FDA has approved several of these ingredients for use deeming them safe for human consumption. But just because these products are likely safe, doesn’t mean they don’t come with side effects. Below is a list of the most common ones to look out for and what their potential side effects and benefits might be.
Acacia gum, also called arabic gum, is made from the hardened sap of the Acacia Senegal tree. In a randomized, placebo controlled, double-blind trial, ingestion of 30 grams/day of acacia gum for 6 weeks resulted in a significant reduction in BMI and body fat percentage. However, subjects did report side effects such as unfavorable viscous sensation in the mouth, nausea in the morning, mild diarrhea, and bloating.
Xanthan Gum is a soluble fiber produced from the fermentation of carbohydrate with xanthomonas campestris bacteria. A 2012 study suggested that xanthan gum may help reduce blood sugar levels in people with diabetes when added to foods. Keep in mind, soluble fiber can also be found in abundance in a diet that contains fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Many animal studies have found that large doses (more than you would typically find in foods) can increase the frequency of stools and can cause soft stools. In human studies, large doses were found to have a laxative effect. It’s also important to note that if you have a severe wheat, corn, soy, or diary allergy, you should avoid foods with this ingredient because the sugar xanthan gum is derived from may come from these food allergens. In several cases, infants on the formula Simply Thick, a xanthan gum-based thickener, developed necrotizing enterocolitis, a life-threatening condition of inflammation and damage to the intestines.
Locust bean gum comes from carob seeds and has shown potential in research to provide cholesterol-lowering benefits because like the others listed above, it slows down the time that food leaves your stomach. Animal studies show no carcinogenic or toxic effects but when studied in humans, it did cause some increased gas production.
Guar gum is a soluble fiber from the guar bean. It can function as a laxative by forming a bulky gel in the digestive track. The physiological effects of guar gum have been extensively studied. It’s now being studied in humans as a therapeutic tool to reduce blood glucose and cholesterol levels. Unfortunately, a lot of the studies report gastrointestinal side effects such as increased gas. This one tends to be a big trigger for my clients who have SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth).
Carrageenan is an indigestible extract from red seaweed. The concern around this additive stems from animal studies which implicate carrageenan in the formation of ulcerations and cancerous lesions in the colon. However, the majority of these studies used a degraded form of the compound which is not approved by the FDA. In certain animals it’s been found to disrupt normal epithelial function and promote intestinal inflammation.
What would I advise based on the research I’ve seen?
I prefer to err on the side of caution with food additives and would say to limit your consumption of these ingredients, especially if you have a history of digestive problems. I would be more likely to pick an item off the shelf that has acacia, locust, or guar gum, than the others mentioned.
My recommended substitutions
It can be VERY tricky to find products without gums, but below is a list of items that my clients most commonly ask for (not sponsored in any way). I prefer to use more natural binders and thickeners such as gelatin, psyllium husk, and chia gel. In my cookbooks, you will see these ingredients show up often.
- Trader Joe’s Almond milk (only almonds and water)
- Thrive Market organic oat beverage
- Three Trees unsweetened almond milk
- Califa Farms organic almond homestyle nutmilk
- Laird superfood creamer
- Horizon organic half & half
- Harmless harvest
- Lavva yogurt
I’d love to hear from you if you’ve had any experience with these ingredients, both positive or negative!