Food “Gums” 101

Ever wonder what those “gums” on some food labels, especially specialty and allergy-free products, actually are? Find out here...

August 11, 2014

Ever wonder what those “gums” on some food labels, especially specialty, allergy-free products, actually are? Well decoding food labels is sometimes tricky, especially with an allergy in mind, so here are some of the most common and interesting gums found in foods, as well as those that make great substitutions for allergy free cooking and baking.

Acacia Gum, also called gum Arabic it comes from the bark of the Acacia Tree and is primarily used as an emulsifying, stabilizing and thickening agent in ice cream, candy and syrups.

Agar or kanten is derived from red algae or seaweed. Historically and today, it is used as an ingredient in desserts like jellies, custards, and puddings throughout Asia. Agar is sold in packages as washed dried strops or in powdered form; it is white and semi-translucent. It is approximately 80 percent fiber, so it can serve as an intestinal regulator, as well as helping you feel fuller longer because, once ingested, it triples in size and absorbs water. Its bulking quality is behind one of the latest fad diets in Asia. That aside, it’s a great substitute for gelatin and as a thickening agent. Refer to individual packages for substitution instructions.

Arrowroot is a thickener that is derived from a large perennial herb found in rainforests. Pure arrowroot, like other pure starches, is a light, white powder, which expands and jells with the addition of water and when cooked - the end product is clear. It is used in cookies, jellies, puddings, hot sauces, sweet and sour sauce, and more. It is also popular in Korean and Vietnamese cooking. Arrowroot prevents ice crystals, or freezer burn, from forming in homemade ice cream. Substitute two teaspoons of arrowroot for one tablespoon of cornstarch. Arrowroot is gluten free and there are a variety of baked goods that use arrowroot flour.

Carrageenan is extracted from red seaweed, also known as Irish Moss; and has been used as a food additive for hundreds of years. It is considered a vegetarian and vegan alternative to gelatin. There has been some dispute regarding the safety of carrageenan, but the Food and Drug Administration after recognizing possible safety issues has not limited carrageenan use in foods, as it appears that the less processed the seaweed is, the better, and the amount contained in processed foods is recognized as safe by the FDA. Reading labels and making sure not all of the foods you consume contain carrageenan is a great place to start.

Guar gum is derived from guar beans, an annual legume principally grown in India and Pakistan, with smaller amounts grown in the US. It is processed into a powder with a pale to off-white color. The largest market for guar gum is the food industry, and it is used in a variety of products. In baked goods, it increases dough yield, and improves texture and shelf life. It is used in dairy to thicken and stabilize yogurt, kefir and some liquid cheese products. Sometimes guar gum is found in meat, where it functions as a binder. Guar gum also improves the stability and appearance of dressings, barbecue sauces, and other condiments.  It is so popular in food preparation because it is up to 8 times as thickening as corn starch. Beans are notoriously difficult to digest, therefore anyone with a food allergy-compromised digestive system should pay attention to find out if guar gum is a friend or foe. Read labels as a guar gum is used in a variety of foods.

Locust Bean Gum, also called carob gum or carubin comes from the seeds of the carob tree. It has been used since ancient times for its thickening properties, both culinary and otherwise - it was actually used by the Egyptians to paste the bandages on to mummies - it is now added to dressings and ice creams and is a useful alternative additive to thicken pie fillings instead of corn or wheat products

Xanthan gum was developed in the US in the ‘60s. It is the slimy result of the fermentation that takes place when a type of bacteria (the type that causes black rot to form on vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower!) is mixed with corn sugar. Anyone with corn allergies should be vigilant about their reaction to this gum (as well as most likely avoiding it) and some people are specifically allergic to it. It's very popular in food production - especially salad dressings and ice cream - as it creates a flowing gelatinous, homogenized texture. Xanthan gum is common in gluten free recipes, so if you’re looking for a less expensive “safe” gum, (depending if you can tolerate it) try guar gum.

Of course everyone is individual, so pay attention to how your body feels.  If you want to avoid food gums all together choose whole fruits and vegetables, legumes, seeds and nuts, as well as lean, clean proteins.

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