Could ‘Gums’ in Processed Foods Be Causing Your Digestive or Other Health Problems?
If you read ingredient labels on processed foods at the supermarket, you’ve probably noticed that gums are very common additives nowadays. Whether it’s xanthan gum, guar gum, locust bean gum (also called carob bean gum) or a few others, these compounds are found in a wide range of products, where they act as thickening, stabilizing and emulsifying agents. Some gum thickeners and emulsifiers might not have the word ‘gum’ in their names, but are considered gums nonetheless. Examples of these are: carrageenan, cellulose (sometimes listed as ‘cellulose gum’), agar (or agar-agar) and alginate (also called sodium alginate or algin).
The two most frequently found are probably xanthan gum and carrageenan. Unfortunately, they also appear to be two of the most potentially harmful. These gums, as well as others, can be found in quite a number of foods nowadays, including many brands of:
Breads, sweet baked goods, tortillas, salad dressings, cream cheeses (including Kraft’s popular brand “Philadelphia”), sweet cream, sour cream, yogurt, ice cream, milk shakes from fast food restaurants, sorbets, ice pops (popsicles), whipped cream, puddings, pie and dessert fillings, cake frosting, pastry icing, candies, chocolates, dips, gravies, mayonnaise, packaged deli meats, sausages, frozen foods, soft drinks, protein powders and drinks, egg nog and non-dairy beverages like soy, almond, coconut or hazelnut milk.
A startling number of processed foods. One single food product may contain more than one gum.
Gums can also be found in some non-food items, including nearly all brands of toothpaste, as well as cough syrups and other liquid medicines, and lipsticks.
Gums have been used more extensively in recent years in non-diet and diet foods alike; they are especially common in foods marketed for people with gluten sensitivity and celiac disease, as these consumers have demanded more gluten-free baked food choices. When manufacturers eliminate gluten from those products, they need to add something to the breads, cookies, etc., to produce more viscosity so the product won’t crumble up too easily. Gums are also added to many “diet” foods, as they lower the caloric content (and nutritional value) in a food. In non-diet foods, they are used to give the food a smoother or thicker consistency, and to keep ingredients from separating. Although one chef who posted his opinion online suspects that gums can also be a way for processed-food makers to bulk up ingredients and make foods cheaper to produce, as real ingredients (like milk and cream) cost more.
Most gums are derived from plant sources. In the case of xanthan gum, the substance consists of the secretions by a strain of bacteria when these organisms digest (ferment) nutrients in a sugary solution. The bacteria are called Xanthomonas campestris, and they are known to cause a few diseases in plants.
Gums Are in Products Labeled ‘Natural’ and ‘Organic’ — But Is That Mislabeling?
Processed-food makers are able to say on their labels that a product with gums is “all natural.” But that is misleading in most cases, since the gums are not found in nature and involved processing methods are required to make most of them. For example, by isolating components in a plant, as when the seeds’ endosperm (the starchy tissue inside the seed) is stripped from the husk, then ground, sometimes requiring treatment with a strong acid solution to remove the seed skin; this is how locust bean gum is made. Alginate, derived from seaweed, is obtained by cutting the weeds into tiny pieces that are then usually treated with strong acids or formaldehyde (a chemical linked to cancer) before the particles are left to dry. To make cellulose gum, a chemical reaction using natural plant cellulose and chlorine bleach is involved. And to make xanthan gum, as stated above, bacteria are cultured in a carbohydrate-rich solution; the sugary goo they release (bacteria ‘poop’, as one online source described it) is then purified and solidified by mixing with isopropyl alcohol; the solid is then dried and ground into a powder.
Not surprisingly, given the extent of processing and the chemicals needed to make most “natural” gums, a lot of people find that they cannot tolerate them. Even a little bit of gum — a spoonful of food — sends many a person racing for the bathroom with gas, cramps and diarrhea, or produces other adverse reactions. And while initial exposures might not cause problems, people’s systems become sensitized over time, so that eventually, even traces of a gum could produce strong symptoms.
Those with gum sensitivities or gum allergies may find it hard to determine the food that’s poisoning them; they may go on elimination diets, and still not find the food — because the problems are not being caused by a food, but by the gum(s). The only way to know what you’re really eating in that case is to read the ingredients label on any and all processed foods, cosmetics, etc., that you’re thinking of buying, before you purchase them. If you eliminate everything with gums, and that’s what was causing the problems, you will soon be back to normal.
People with Gastrointestinal Problems Are More Apt to React to Gums
People who have digestive issues (some of the very folks who may buy gum-containing foods, to avoid gluten) seem to be at higher risk of being sensitive to gums. If you have conditions such as the following, it may be especially important for you to avoid gums: other food allergies or sensitivities; irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); the less common but more serious inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease; or small bowel bacterial overgrowth, also called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, and abbreviated SBBO or SIBO. It is important to note that in the case of IBS and IBD, doctors very often cannot pinpoint the cause of a patient’s symptoms. Treatment for these conditions consists of prescription medications to manage symptoms, and lifestyle changes, such as avoiding known trigger foods and reducing stress. Certainly, gums are a trigger that’s being overlooked by many patients and their doctors.
Because gums add bulk to foods, but have little or no nutritional value, they also tend to increase the volume of stool expelled, as the gut does not digest them very much, if at all. Gums can also soften stools, even when people are not sensitive to them.
Studies have found that some gums can be useful in lowering blood cholesterol, in avoiding blood sugar spikes and decreasing insulin requirements for diabetics, and as laxatives. These could be good attributes for some people. However, the trade-offs might not be worth it.
Health Problems with Xanthan Gum, One of the Most Common Gums Found in Many Processed Foods
Reading the ingredients in a food to avoid gums is of course impossible when you’re at a restaurant. One woman wrote of her experiences with xanthan gum sensitivity on a naturopathic health website. She used to get gas, diarrhea and even vomit when she ate salads at restaurants. Doctors conducted many tests, including allergy tests, but could not find the cause of her digestive problems. She did an elimination diet, and when she eliminated wheat, she started buying foods that had xanthan gum. That’s when she realized that her problem was not wheat or gluten, but xanthan gum. She then understood that the salad dressings she had been eating at restaurants contained the gum. Once she figured that out, she stopped getting sick.
Many other people sensitive or allergic to xanthan gum have reported the following reactions when eating foods with the gum: dizziness, reddened skin, facial rashes, extreme bloating, fever, aches and pain all over, migraine headaches and even life-threatening anaphylaxis. Symptoms can occur within minutes of eating a food with the gum, a few hours later, or the next day. Diarrhea can take a couple of days to clear up.
Xanthan gum has also been known to cause arthritis pain in some people, possibly indicating that it produces inflammation — that is, irritation or infection — in the body’s tissues. Indeed, a few xanthan gum-sensitive people posting comments on online blogs have brought up the legitimate point that the gum is the product of bacteria (that as pointed out earlier, cause diseases in plants and are therefore not the beneficial kind). If someone eats this gum, they are not eating the harmful bacteria, per se, but certainly are eating a substance that was produced by those organisms and that as such, can have some of the same toxic / infectious capabilities.
Something else to consider is whether ongoing consumption of xanthan gum might over time alter a person’s gut microbiome — and not for the better.
In addition to reactions that a person can notice, it’s a good idea to think of how xanthan gum may adversely affect the body even when there are no sensitivity issues. One study found that consumption of xanthan gum in food resulted in an increase of bile in feces, possibly indicating that the liver continued to release bile into the small intestine to help break down what the gut and brain perceived as undigested food — even when a higher than natural proportion of that food was indigestible. Unused bile is normally reabsorbed by the liver; but in this case, it was absorbed by the gum and kept traveling down the gastrointestinal tract. It may be smart to consider the possible harm of carrying excess, unused bile in the colon and rectum. Bile is a strong, very bitter fluid, similar to stomach acid, the liquid that gives one a burning sensation in the throat and esophagus when the esophageal valve doesn’t work correctly, or when there’s too much acid in the stomach, as with over-consumption of caffeinated drinks or alcohol. While bile is necessary for digesting fats, we certainly don’t want to frequently “trick” our livers into sending more to the small intestine, that will be neither used nor reabsorbed by the body.
For babies, xanthan gum should generally be avoided. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration warned parents and caregivers of babies not to give their infants a xanthan gum-based product called SimplyThick. This powder was being commonly used in hospitals to thicken breast milk or formula for infants with swallowing difficulties or to prevent spit-ups (usually, though not always, in premature newborns). However, the practice was linked to necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a condition in which intestinal tissue becomes inflamed and dies. Of 22 babies identified as having developed NEC after being given SimplyThick, 7 died and 14 required surgery. (Source: “Warning Too Late for Some Babies,” The New York Times, Feb. 4, 2013.)
Researchers stated that more study would be necessary to establish whether the thickening compound caused the illness; but they cautioned parents to consult with their doctors before feeding SimplyThick or other gum thickeners to their infants. For babies under 12 months of age, doctors recommend that rice cereal or baby oatmeal be used to thicken milk.
Carrageenan: Another Commonly Used Gum that Can Cause Big Problems
Carrageenan, the other gum besides xanthan gum that is extremely common, has been found in a number of animal studies to be harmful, in both its degraded and undegraded forms (the latter is the type used in foods). Both kinds were linked to gastrointestinal cancers, inflammation and higher numbers of intestinal lesions and ulcerations. (Sources: Joanne Tobacman, MD, U. of Illinois College of Medicine; Andrew Weil, MD, DrWeil.com; “Carrageenan: How a ‘Natural’ Food Additive Is Making Us Sick,” The Cornucopia Institute, cornucopia.org.)
One of the mechanisms by which food-grade (undegraded) carrageenan may do harm is by mixing with stomach acids that might then degrade it; degraded carrageenan is a potent, widely suspected carcinogen (cornucopia.org). In addition, the unique chemical structure of carrageenan activates the body’s immune response, since the body perceives it as a dangerous intruder. The immune response produces inflammation; when inflammation is constant and prolonged, as would happen in someone who consumes carrageenan on a regular basis, it can promote more than 100 possible illnesses, including gastrointestinal difficulties like IBS and IBD.
Dr. Joanne Tobacman, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois, has done 18 peer-reviewed studies on carrageenan in the past decade, which demonstrated carrageenan’s inflammatory effects; other researchers had been sounding the alarm on the perils of this additive as far back as the late 1960’s.
Besides digestive disorders, persistent (chronic) inflammation is linked to other serious ailments such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis. Dr. Tobacman also found that when laboratory mice were given low concentrations of carrageenan for 18 days, they develop pronounced glucose intolerance and diminished insulin effectiveness (DrWeil.com). These two conditions can of course result in diabetes.
Consumption of the additive can also produce more immediate problems in the gut; many people experiencing GI symptoms find that those improve greatly or disappear when they eliminate carrageenan from their diets. This can happen with milder cases of bloating, as well as IBS and IBD (cornucopia.org).
One woman quoted on The Cornucopia Institute’s online report on carrageenan shared her experience of being allergic to carrageenan. She spent many years living life in fear because she used to get fits of vomiting that she did not know how to control. She was afraid to leave her home for too many hours because she could not predict when the next vomiting fit would occur. Then, she went in for testing. She fasted for the X-rays that doctors would be taking of her abdomen. At the clinic, she was given a barium solution to drink, to better define the X-ray images. The mixture had carrageenan, and even though she had eaten nothing, she began vomiting uncontrollably. She knew then that her problem had been carrageenan all along. When she stopped eating the gum, her vomiting episodes ended.
Other adults report that carrageenan causes them to get eczema flareups. This is a troubling point, because carrageenan is also found in some infant formulas. It begs the question whether that may be partly to blame for the epidemic of eczema cases in babies that’s developed in the last decades.
Dr. Tobacman, whose findings on carrageenan were published in the journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (an agency of the National Institutes of Health), has been one of the leading scientific voices in the campaign to ban carrageenan from foods, especially those labeled organic. She petitioned the Food and Drug Administration a few years ago, and more recently, she addressed the National Organic Standards Board, a federal board that advises the United States Secretary of Agriculture. She urged both agencies to reconsider the decision to allow carrageenan in foods, due to its potentially serious and manifold dangers. She shared the interesting fact that in the past, drug researchers used carrageenan to produce inflammation in bodily tissues, so that they could test anti-inflammatory properties of new drugs (cornucopia.org; DrWeil.com).
While regulatory agencies debate the matter, consumers certainly don’t have to wait to become proactive in improving their health and avoiding diseases, by removing additives such as carrageenan from their diets.
Reactions to Guar Gum
Guar gum is made from the endosperm of the guar bean, after the seed germ and husk are removed through heating and sieving. Different methods are used to obtain the gum powder, and there are different grades of quality. In some cases, the finished powder may be purified and clarified using ethanol or isopropanol (source: “GUAR GUM Chemical and Technical Assessment,” Yoko Kawamura, PhD, 2008, fao.org). While the processing methods for guar gum can be simpler than those for some other gums, some people find that their systems cannot tolerate it.
People posting comments online complain of guar gum giving them nausea, gas, diarrhea, dehydration, constipation, hives, rapid heart beat and dizziness. One woman recounted how she had eliminated all common allergens from her diet, only to realize that guar gum was the cause of her problems. She stated that she had filed a complaint with the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, asking that this gum be removed from foods.
Another person shared that guar gum produced rashes, redness around the temples and in the center of the chest, and red, patchy sores. This person also had chronic dandruff and frequent diarrhea. All of these conditions went away when she stopped eating guar gum.
Gellan Gum: Another Additive Made of Bacterial Excretions
Like xanthan gum, gellan gum is also made by bacteria cultured in a sugary solution. The bacteria, Sphingomonas elodea, are one species out of many in a genus that’s widespread and normal in nature. Sphingomonads are known to be hardy organisms able to thrive with minimal nutrition; some species have been found in environments contaminated with toxic compounds, where they’ve shown they can use the contaminants as nourishment. Some species can also cause non-life-threatening infections in humans that may require antibiotics.
Studies done on gellan gum consumption have not found toxic effects, nor have users commented online on any problems with regular consumption. This might be partly due to the fact that gellan gum isn’t used nearly as much in processed foods as the other gums. Or perhaps its effects are more subtle than those of other gums.
One study found that giving rats 5 percent gellan gum in their diets for four weeks led to intestinal microvilli adhering to one another, and decreased digestion of nutrients in the gut (source: “Effects of Curdlan and Gellan Gum on the Surface Structure of Intestinal Mucosa in Rats,” Osaka City Univ. and Osaka Prefecture Univ., 2009, jstage.jst.go.jp).
Microvilli are the tiny hairlike tubes that cover the surface of villi, which are the finger-like structures lining the inside of intestines. The microvilli are where nutrients are absorbed into the blood and carried to the entire body; they also release fluids that aid digestion. The whole purpose of there being so many of them is to make digestion and absorption of nutrients as fast and effective as possible. Clearly, then, it would be a bad idea to eat something sticky that has no nutritional value, cannot be digested, and would impair the ability of microvilli to absorb and secrete by forming a gummy film over them.
Other Reactions to Gums
Some people who are sensitive to gums have reported experiencing panic attacks, racing hearts (120 beats per minute at rest) and irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia) after eating various gums. The effects can occur soon after ingestion or hours later.
One woman commented on a website that her physician had diagnosed her racing heart and panic attacks as a psychiatric illness, and she was about to start on psychotropic medications; but then, her daughter advised her to consider the possibility that she might be suffering from food allergies, including gums, and recommended that she start on a special “white diet,” as she called it, eating mostly foods like rice and dairy. She did so, and the racing heart and panic attacks stopped.
Another commenter wrote that eating gums causes her to break out with acne. Her dermatologists do not believe that gums are the culprit and tried to convince her that she’s allergic to dairy products. However, she counters that she can drink milk and eat cheese or yogurt that have no gums, and she’s fine. But when she eats anything with gums, she develops cysts.
Other Gums that Might Cause Problems
Agar, extracted from red seaweed, was found in animal studies to increase tumor development when colon cancer had been chemically induced. Once again, while whole seaweed may be fine to eat, a gum extracted from it is no longer a whole food, and it may have undergone chemical processing that further changes the plant’s original properties.
Tara gum, a more recent entry in the processed foods industry, is rarely used as an additive, and not much information is found on it online. Like guar and locust bean gums, tara gum is obtained by grinding the seed endosperm of a legume; in this case, Caesalpinia spinosa, a plant that produces seed-bearing pods. Like those other two gums, tara gum is indigestible.
Tara gum was recently added to Breyers “all natural” ice cream. Not surprisingly, some consumers commenting on an ice cream reviews website stated that they ate the new Breyers with its new additive, and they got a stomach ache and diarrhea. Some stated that they did not like the taste that the gum gave it, and that the ice cream now has an unpleasant “aftertaste.” A few said that they threw away the Breyers ice cream they had bought, after they read the new additive on the ingredients, due to concerns over possible sensitivities and out of a desire to eat as few additives as possible. All agreed they will not be buying Breyers anymore.
Some of these fans of ice cream and foods with no artificial additives recommended to readers that they buy Turkey Hill or Haagen Dazs, as these appear to be two of the very last brands of ice cream left in the United States that still stick to just simple, natural ingredients (the way Breyers used to, and used to advertise on TV that it did). Out of enormous shelf space, aisles full of ice creams and frozen treats of all kinds at the average chain supermarket, it is a sad day when only a couple of brands, if you can find them, contain only natural ingredients that living beings were designed to consume.
The Breyers ingredient addition is a good example of why it’s important to read the ingredients on all processed foods we buy — even when we have been buying a particular brand for years. These days, it seems many food manufacturers are increasingly prone to adding artificial, cost-cutting, shelf life-extending substances to their foods, with little thought to how those additives will affect consumers’ health in the short and long run. Perhaps they figure that customers won’t even notice or care. But the fact is, millions of customers do notice and do care.
Gum Arabic: May Be a Useful Prebiotic, but Use Sparsely
Of the gums we’ve discussed, gum arabic, also known as acacia gum, may be the most benign. It is obtained from the hardened sap of the acacia tree. Gum arabic has been used in foods for thousands of years, which is reassuring, and it seems the likeliest to undergo minimal processing. Some people have used it as a prebiotic, since it’s been shown to selectively support growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
As with other additives, consumption should not be excessive, and one should keep in mind the possibility of allergies. In addition, the FDA’s Select Committee on GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) Substances has called for further animal studies on gum arabic, due to findings that when fed at “relatively high levels,” it’s “toxic to pregnant animals of one species” (source: Select Committee on GRAS Substances Opinion: Gum Arabic, fda.gov).
Given the effects most gums can produce in many individuals, it seems best to simply avoid them. One exception is gum arabic, which has shown digestive benefits. Consumption should be at reasonable, low levels, and the potential for allergy should be considered. Pregnant women should use caution and consult with their doctors.
When eating at restaurants, if you have digestive issues, don’t hesitate to talk to the manager or chef about all the specific ingredients in the foods you are ordering. With respect to fast food chains, most are highly likely to include gums in various foods and condiments.
As always, reading ingredient labels, preparing one’s meals from scratch at home and eating whole foods are the best ways to avoid any unnecessary and potentially harmful food additives.
To lose weight and combat heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes and so forth, it is best to reduce portion sizes, increase consumption of non-starchy vegetables, decrease intake of fatty foods and meats, and eliminate sugary drinks or chemical sweeteners. Exercising more is also key.
If you have gluten sensitivities and bake your own breads and cakes, make sure that the gluten-free flours you use do not contain gums, as many of them do. To bind ingredients for baking, instead of using gums, try using natural, safe ingredients such as: eggs, bananas, chia seeds (they form a gel when soaked in water) or plain gelatin, which promotes friendly gut bacteria growth and has many nutrients.
By Cynthia Sanchez. A graduate of the University of Washington, Cynthia has extensive experience writing about health and wellness topics for different media.