Why do I keep seeing gums in my store-bought food items? Are they safe for me? Why do I feel bloated after eating what I thought to be health conscious foods?
Let’s start with the health conscious foods. This is the tricky part about grocery shopping or nutrition in general, because many of us think “let me go buy some almond milk because it’s supposed to be good for me,” and then don’t give it a second thought to look at the ingredients list, but I’m here to tell you that not all almond milks or food items are created equal. We must constantly remind ourselves that one, just because something is deemed “healthy” in society, does not make it healthy in reality. Second, whenever something, such as macronutrients, calories, sugar or salt are removed from a product, the product goes through further extensive processing and must have more macronutrients, sugar, calories or sodium added back in excess to even out the flavors. Nothing is as simple as just removing an ingredient. Next time you go to grab a low fat yogurt, check the sugar content, because I can guarantee you it’ll be a lot higher than your regular full fat yogurt. Also, don’t forget fat isn’t always bad –we need fat to absorb fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and is also great for brain health and growth in children.
Time to get into the nitty-gritty of gums and what they do in our food and more importantly what they do in our bodies. With the help of Chris Kresser, I am going to review the most common gums found in our "health conscious" food products from the most problematic to least problematic gums.
Like all food is not created equal, all gums are not created equal either. Let’s talk carrageenan, a food additive commonly used as a thickener/stabilizer that most of us have seen on the ingredients list of foods we typically eat. Red Algae (seaweed) carrageenan has been around for years, the current problem is the refined, isolated carrageenan found in modern processed foods, especially in almond and coconut milks.
There are two types of carrageenan, undegraded (approved for use in food products) and degraded (poligeenan). Animal studies show the use of poligeenan (they called carrageenan) in relation to the formation of ulcers and cancerous lesions in the colon.
Poligeenan is significantly more detrimental to the health of lab animals and can cause cancer when on its own in high concentrations; whereas, undegraded carrageenan has only been known to accelerate cancer only when administered with a known carcinogen (toxin). Poligeenan also produces more severe ulceration and inflammation than carrageenan at lower concentrations.
In animal studies, carageenan has been seen to produce intestinal damage. It is also good to not carageenan can be more harmful when consumed with water compared to food and is species dependent between different animals which makes it more difficult to test on humans.
For ethical reasons, human studies are limited, but some have been completed with undegraded carrageenan that noted potential negative ramifications for the cell function and vitality and cell cycle arrest. Increased cell death has been found in concentrations lower than what would be found in a typical diet...SCARY!
Unfortunately, poligeenan can be produced from carrageenan; however, has no functional (thickening) effect in food and would be unlikely to show up a high amounts in processed foods. A concern with small percentages of consumed carigeenan is if it can be degraded into poligeenan during digestion as some evidence indicates this can occur in as much as 10-20% of carrageenan. This is uncertain, but still concerning as studies report a potential correlation with carrageenan and ulceration and inflammation with gut issues. Overall, carrageenan's studies are inconclusive with no proven safety, aka I’d avoid it at all costs especially if you have digestive issues.
Tara gums: (endosperm of legumes) is second in line for being in the "danger" zone strictly for the reasoning it doesn’t have enough evidence of safety on humans
Gellan gums: produced by bacterial fermentation, which is a bulking agent. In a study of rats, abnormalities were found in the intestinal microvilli, which is scary to think about and with the lack of overall data... this should make you weary and to be avoided for safety.
Xanthan gum is a largely indigestible polysaccharide produced by bacteria -similar to gellan gums. Studies show it may cause soft stools with an increase in water and sugar content in the intestines. Xanthan gums have been widely studied and also shown an increase in short chain fatty acid content, which is vital in colon health, but immature digestive systems have been shown to be extremely sensitive to SCFA; thus reasoning for the correlation of xanthan gum intake and necrotizing enterocolitis in infants who use formulas with this added gum.
*There are some positives with oral xanthan in that it has been shown to reduce cholesterol, slow tumor growth, prolong survival of mice with melanoma and has the ability of the intestines to adjust and adapt quickly to this food source (intestinal bacteria).
*Be mindful, xanthan gum is produced by bacterial fermentation of a sugar-containing medium that is often made of corn, soy, dairy or wheat, which are all common allergens. The problem is that manufacturers can claim the xanthan gum is still gluten-free...IT'S NOT.
Overall, avoid consumption of xanthan gums by infants/formula, in those with the above allergies and those with digestive problems. I would suggest to avoid xanthan consumption on a regular basis to avoid potential GI damage –try to stick to a real, whole food diet.
Guar Gum: This is derived from food (guar bean) and is not produced using common food allergens. This gum has been shown to decrease body weight, lower blood sugar, decrease cholesterol and is high in soluble fiber. This gum is non carcinogenic or teratogenic (harmful to fetus); however, it can increase gas and have some GI side effects that have been said to improve with the removal of gums. Highly suggest avoiding gums with SIBO and IBS.
Locus Bean Gum (same level of safety as Guar gum): This gum is made by the carob bean (seeds of the carob tree) that has been shown to decrease cholesterol, increase HDL: LDL ratio and is non carcinogenic/toxic. Increased gas has been reported, but also noted to be gone within 1-2 weeks after consumption. Again, avoid with GI problems such as SIBO/IBS.
Gum Arabic: least problematic gum and is from the sap of an acacia tree. This gum is “not specified” as an additive, which means little or no observed toxic potential exists (positive or negative). Aside from a slight reduction in cholesterol and an increase in breath hydrogen test, which indicates metabolism by intestinal bacteria. This gum is one of the most powerful prebiotics, stimulating the growth of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria with conclusions stating it is as effective, if not more effective as the prebiotic inulin.
Hope this helped clear up all your "sticky" questions!