Are Gums Safe Food Additives?

Manufacturers throw a surprising – and sometimes frightening – amount of artificial substances into foods these days. These additives can fulfill any number of functions, influencing the flavor, texture, appearance and shelf life of your food.

One of the most common types of additives is the class known as “gums.” These substances have a very long history of use and are found in a wide range of products. Recently, however, health-minded individuals have started to question the safety of gums. So what do you need to know about them? What are gums? Why are they in your food? Most importantly, are they safe?

What They Are And What They Do

As we’ve already alluded, the term “gum” really refers to a collection of substances that can be derived from a number of sources. While the vast majority of gums that are used in food are extracted from various plants, a few of them are actually produced through bacterial fermentation.

But why are they tossed into so many foods? A major hint is in the name. Regardless of their origins, gums act as stabilizers, thickeners, and emulsifiers. This can be extremely useful when manufacturers need to combine ingredients that don’t naturally blend together well or when a food is designed to be frozen and then thawed.

Since the much-maligned plant protein gluten is responsible for the fluffy texture of bread and other baked goods, removing it creates a significant problem. Gums – typically either guar or xantham – are the standard solution, replacing the troublesome protein and fulfilling the same function.

The Good And The Bad

What effect do these gums have on your system, though?

Interestingly, there is some evidence indicating that carob, gellan, acacia and guar gums can offer a range of benefits including an improved cholesterol profile and normalized blood-sugar levels. Some small studies have even found that xantham gum could reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.

So…what’s the problem?

Since all of these gums have slightly different properties, they all impact the human body in slightly different ways. For the most part, though, they all have one thing in common: digestive problems.

Even though many gums are derived from natural sources like plants, eating the plant would only expose you to a small amount of the gum – if any at all. When used as an additive, then, your body suddenly has to deal with unnaturally high concentrations of these compounds.

Which it can’t really do.

Depending on the dosage and your level of sensitivity, reactions could include bloating, inflammation, gas and other digestive issues.

One gum, carageenan, has even been shown to increase your risk of diabetes and systemic inflammation. Concerns over this particular additive actually lead to it being banned from infant formulas in the European Union.