Ever wonder about the origin of using gums in gluten-free baking?
Yeah. Me, too. It almost seems like it went from laboratory experiment to commercial application to special exotic ingredient in some very early gluten-free cookbooks in a matter of minutes. But let’s start at the beginning. Meet (Chemical Abstract Service registry) CAS 11138-66-2 or otherwise known on the street as xanthan gum or corn sugar gum in the way back days (and still called that in China).
Blame it on the curiosity of the USDA. Or Peoria, the USDA research facility where xanthan gum, or CAS 1138-66-2 was born. In a test tube by the handiwork of this chemist, Dr. Allene Rosalind Jeanes in the mid to late 1950’s.
In 1969 the FDA approved x-gum fit for human consumption and it jumped into the commercial food market (in the 1980’s for Europe). B
orn in a laboratory discovered in the 1950’s it went through all kinds of testing to make sure it was safe for human consumption and oh, say, petroleum drilling.
Remember. This is back in the day when additives were becoming very attractive to the food industry in order to bring fanciful things to the market with long shelf lives like cookies that lasted forty-two years or prepackaged instant dinners in a box that could be purchased and used two years hence. The whole idea was to make food as pretty as possible along with capturing a longer shelf life. Like salad dressings which always looks picture perfect on the shelf in the store because x-gum keeps the blend somewhat emulsified (not icky separated).
Even the oil industry was super excited about x-gum because they use tons of it in drilling operations to keep that mud thick. But hey, since it didn’t kill humans, into our food supply it went.
Fast forward to the mid 1970’s and the mad scientists in Peoria were at it again. They began to incorporate xanthan gum into an experimental soy bread they were making for vegetarians intended to increase their protein intake. Apparently the bread fell flat when baked until they added xanthan gum. They predicted the product would sweep the market place and every vegetarian on earth would line up for this very swell loaf of soy. Since most of us are saying about now: “what soy bread?” we know how that went, don’t we?
But those chemists were hooked. They never give up. Soon they were trying the same process for making low gluten bread for the gluten intolerant in the early 80’s the thinking was that bread with less than 0.2% gluten was A.O.K for those with celiac and because it evolved from the same laboratory where xanthan gum was born and it performed so well in the experimental soy bread, x-gum was included in that new loaf of bread. It also included pentosan which is a polysaccharide (a soluble fiber) made from (wait for it) wheat.
Next, blame it on California (and I live here). If anything weird was to be used in cooking, baking, eating, it might have started here. By weird I mean using xanthan gum in baking bread. The first commercial baking use of xanthan gum was in California in the early 80’s, maybe late 1970’s. After 1970 something a few early adopters used xanthan gum in very early gluten-free cookbooks – Hilda Hills (Good Food, Gluten-Free 1976, Pivot Books, McGraw-Hill) and Margaret Powers (Gluten-Free and Good! Old Town Press, 1984) and then Bette Hageman’s cookbook series. And the rest is history. Almost every internet/online baking recipe will include xanthan gum as a necessary ingredient. Almost every gluten-free baking book will list x-gum as an ingredient and almost every AP baking mix on the grocery shelf contains xanthan gum.
But let’s stop for a moment and go back in time. When GF flours first came to market the choice was white rice flour, white rice flour or white rice flour. Eventually gluten-free baking began to include mixes of alternative flours, starches and a multitude of gums (known as hydrocolloids) which helped create a better crumb. But xanthan gum is one of those things that became the better way (at the time) of making gluten-free more like regular stuff.
Eventually the x-gum became like everything else – something we use in gluten-free baking just because. Historically it became part of the gluten-free baking landscape.
But let’s examine our use of xanthan gum.
Just the Gummy Facts
We generally use too much x-gum. The industry suggests using about 0.5% which means that for any recipe that uses 260 grams or 2 cups of flour, 1.3 grams or less than 1/2 teaspoon is the amount that will do – that’s about 1/4 teaspoon per 130 grams/1 cup of flour (1 teaspoon is about 3.6 grams). More than that and the taste & gummy mouth feel thing starts to occur. Most recipes add a teaspoon or more per cup of flour. Probably pretty safe to cut back, experiment and see what happens to the taste and texture of the product.
Xanthan gum in large doses – which means if you eat a lot of baked goods on a daily basis like bread, biscuits, muffins, or cookies – has a cumulative effect. In large doses the additive acts as a laxative. Just be aware.
Xanthan gum does not replace the actual properties of gluten in a gluten-free recipe. It merely mimics a little bit of the feel of the dough or batter made with gluten – creating (mostly) a stickiness that we’ve come to expect once the raw dough or batter is mixed. Structurally, it’s a gel.
Xanthan gum was primarily derived from corn products (which is why the industry sometimes refers to it as corn sugar gum) and its uses are as varied as toothpaste flavors – see the list of things you can make with these corn sugar gums. Fun! But now it can originate from nearly any grain source (think fermented grain sources).
Is Your Gum Toxin Free?
Be careful. Xanthan gum in food is one thing, but in medications it can be (or has) been a problem because it might not be toxin free. It’s always good to make certain your source of xanthan gum is produced cleanly. Like the safety caveat for honey, probably best not to feed x-gum to infants, either. Look under additives, gums here. And check the links below – folks (and especially infants) with weak immune systems might want to step away from the gums.
To Gum or Not to Gum
To gum or not to gum is a personal thing. I’m not here to tell you to never use gums because it’s evil. As Modernist states (link below) gums are similar to yeast and vinegar. They are man-made, but not unnatural. Fermentation is fermentation.
The source of the gum is where it gets sticky (pun!) for me. I avoid corn, GMO or not. It gives me trouble with a capital T. I also avoid as much GMO stuff as I can. If the x-gum is derived from corn or a GMO source I’m going to avoid it. Finding out that information from a manufacturer is not easy. Some specify the source and others do not. And sources change, so the information today might not be the same information next week. The best bet is if you have any question, to call the company for information. Verify the source. Verify testing for toxicity.
We use gums in breads and similar baked goods, but we use as little as possible and certainly way less than most recipes (most of the time). When we began baking gluten-free we used gums freely but eventually learned two things. First, for us it causes gastric unhappiness. Also, the gummy taste overwhelms the baked good’s flavor and texture. Even with a tiny amount. It makes no difference how little we use. To be fair, I also dislike x-gum in salad dressings and hate it in ice cream. But there are plenty of folks who are not bothered by the taste. It’s an individual thing. No one size fits all.
But eventually we realized that x-gum was not necessary in many baked goods. We believe that the flavors, texture, and crumb in our baked goods benefited from leaving it out. For the most part our recipes are gum-free and will remain that way. And no other substitutes like psyllium (hello: Metamucil) or chia or flax are used either. Subbing one gastric irritant for another seems counter productive.
Using xanthan gum is totally up to the baker. I truly believe gluten-free bakers can use way less than most recipes indicate, or less than what might be included in premade mixes. But that’s just me.
Clean xanthan gum is not evil. It’s just
Read More Gumminess Here
Lynne Olver, Editor, Food Timeline:
- Soy Sandwiches,” Washington Post, February 14, 1976 (p. B4) [Dateline: Peoria, United Press International newswire.]
- Tom Neuhaus, Washington Post, December 28, 1983 (p. E6)
- Xanthan Gum Helps Dough Keep Strength, Elasticity” Altoona Mirror [PA], December 20, 1975 (p. 21)