It might sound like a chemical from orgo lab, but xanthan gum is actually a natural food additive commonly found in sauces and dressings. Your favorite barbecue sauce probably owes its perfect texture to the thickening action of xanthan gum.
Indeed, xanthan gum’s primary role as a food additive is to make solutions more viscous, and a little bit goes a long way.
Xanthan gum takes its name from Xanthomonas campestris, the bacteria used in the additive’s fermentation. Take some sugar (glucose or sucrose), mix with Xanthomonas, clean it up, and boom! You’ve got xanthan gum.
In American food products, the sugar used to create xanthan gum is typically corn syrup or a derivative of corn syrup.
Xanthan gum can be okay
My general philosophy regarding ingredients is to avoid stuff you can’t pronounce or picture growing in nature. Practice and repetition solves the former problem for me, but the latter is impossible for xanthan gum to get around. Without any doubt, xanthan gum is a second-order natural, refined product.
On a personal level, I’ve come to accept xanthan gum in salad dressing (though I try to skip dressings that contain it) and elaborate pre-made sauces. I’m also okay with xanthan gum in ice cream.
Some gluten-free baked goods use xanthan gum to add volume, which is one of the reasons you can find xanthan gum at most healthy foods stores.
But sometimes, xanthan gum can be a bad sign
Of course, there are some products that scare me off when I see xanthan gum on the label. Chief among them is salsa: really cheap salsa manufacturers cut corners with xanthan gum (and often artificial colors/flavors). They water down the salsa, add some xanthan, and then sell it for less. Xanthan gum’s presence in pickle relish also frightens me.
Do you need to avoid xanthan gum?
No, you don’t need to avoid xanthan gum, but it’s helpful to be aware of what products you consume that contain it. Sometimes, the presence of xanthan gum (like in salsa) can be a sign that the manufacturers were more concerned with overhead cost than product quality.