Turns Out I’ve Been Eating a Lot of Xanthan Gum

Quick, what do salad dressing, toothpaste, and sub-hydrological concrete have in common? It’s the newest food trend sweeping the nation’s culinary-industrial complex: thickening gums!

I know what you’re thinking: you’ve never heard of them because you’ve never read an ingredient list. Well, let me promise you that as soon as you complete your minor in chemistry, a whole new world of tasty delights will open up to you, but not to your esophagus, which will be coated in thickening gums. Or perhaps you have chanced to read the obscure type on a bottle of infant formula, and tuned out after the seventh use of “-phate.” I don’t blame you, because you were desperately trying to calm your crying baby and perhaps had lost the ability to cogitate with your brain-feelers. Never fear! I am here to let you in on this exciting trend, just like the transparently helpful International Food Additives Council educated me when it appeared as the first result of Googling “food gums.”

Google results for
This was a helpful and completely innocent search result ranking.

As I learned, food gums are a broad class of chemical polysaccharides derived from natural and laboratory sources that make our food pleasantly gooey, just like they literally and not-joking do for play slime. They impart the delightful ooze characteristic of your favorite Hidden Valley Old Fashioned Buttermilk Ranch: Authentic Flavor of Buttermilk Dressing; provide the thick texture of your favorite fat-free ice cream without any of the taste, mouth feel, or disgusting sense of fullness of actual dairy fat; and ensure that your gel-based cosmetics adhere to your face. But please don’t eat gel-based cosmetics! Just a little public safety warning there.

The king of industrial food gums is the exotic xanthan gum. Available in convenient take-home packages, xanthan gum can be added to anything to increase its gooeyness and, in large doses—bonus!—bulk up your stools. Of course, unless you suffer from a digestive condition, there is no need to add it to your meals because it has insinuated itself into our food supply. You can find xanthan gum in salad dressing, ice cream, cottage cheese, infant formula, frozen cooked shrimp, toothpaste, cosmetics, fake blood, play slime, concrete poured underwater, and drilling mud used in the oil industry.

There are many other types of gums in use, however. One of my favorites is guar gum, which besides being onomatopoeic, gives our soups, yogurt, and cottage cheese (even xanthan gum sometimes needs help) the viscosity of mud. It is also useful for bread and pastries, meat, condiments, instant oatmeal, and animal feeds, such as instant oatmeal. Guar gum also has a host of industrial uses, including all of the aforementioned uses of xanthan gum as well as utility for paper products, fire retardants, and explosives. It certainly has blown up my world! And possibly damaged my gut flora.

And don’t forget about carobin or carob gum—also called locust bean gum, though that term would be shunned by the food-thickening community if they had any marketing sense. Who wants to eat locust bean gum? No one. Only locust predators that don’t mind a little gas and are trying to avoid additional cavities. Carobin is used in hundreds of foodstuffs, in addition to pet foods, industrial mining fluids, and textile processing. It thickens your patterned shirts just as it thickens your ice cream—thickens you inside and out, as I like to say!

There’s also gum arabic (icing!), carrageenan (children’s chocolate milk! intestinal inflammation!), tara gum (more ice cream!), gellan gum (soy milk!), and alginate (beer! jelly! slimming agents!).The next time your old-fashioned parents tell you not to swallow gum, just mention these wonderful products and tell them to stuff it—down their gullets, because they’re yummy!

Now, a lot of people have expressed concern about the health effects of these kinds of food additives. But let me ensure you that it is entirely natural to separate the seeds of a locust bean from its pulp, remove the seed skins by an acid treatment, separate the hardy endosperm from the brittle outer germ, grind it into a powder, and then add it in combination with other thickeners, stabilizers, and emulsifiers to produce the glue that comes out of your salad dressing. In addition to being useful for those on gluten-free diets who pine for the pleasures of throat gunk, food gums are great for strengthening ear lobes, filling in back-hair bald spots, and making your nipples sharper. The scientific community is not sure about any of these claims, though.

Whew! That was a stomachfull of gums! There’s only one question left: How do you get in on this exciting trend?

Head to your local grocer and ask for food.

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