In the world of “normal” baked goods, wheat gluten is what creates that wonderful elasticity in dough – helping it rise, retain its shape, and giving the final baked product a nice, chewy mouth feel. When you take wheat gluten out, as you have to in gluten-free baking, you have to replace it with something that will act as a binding agent, and most of the time you will find that xanthan gum is used. Not only will you find it in baked goods, baking mixes, and so forth, but also in toothpaste, salad dressings , certain condiments, sauces, and cosmetics. This is all fine and great, unless you have a food allergy to corn, soy, dairy, or wheat – because those are the most common mediums on which it is grown.
If you have switched to a gluten free diet, you have surely noticed by now that xanthan gum is in pretty much everything that comes pre-packaged. I am assuming that since the package states “gluten-free” that the manufacturers make sure that the xanthan gum used has not been derived from wheat, but honestly you never can be so sure. Since the ingredient itself says nothing about where it comes from, it very well could come from wheat and they don’t have to tell you since it most likely was not manufactured in their facility, and the trace amounts could pass for the legal amount allowed to still be proclaimed as “gluten-free”. If you are extra sensitive or have a legit allergy to wheat, watch out. Even that trace amount can cause a flare up. The same goes for corn, soy, and dairy. I personally have a corn allergy, and find that xanthan gum gets me every time. Corn and soy seem to be the most popular mediums of choice, probably since they are so cheap and easily obtainable in mass quantities.
Since I have found out about my corn and gluten intolerance, I have become accustomed to having to ask manufacturers about where they obtain ingredients, how they were derived, etc., because as I said before, they are not required to list these things on labels. Allergens can be hidden within fancy named ingredients, and they absolutely do not have to tell you – which is just plain awful. Shouldn’t we have the right to know exactly what is in the foods we eat? Yes. Yes we should. But, since we aren’t being told anything directly, I strongly urge you to take the extra steps to find out for yourself by contacting each manufacturer and asking them how the xanthan gum was produced, and if they don’t know, ask where they obtained it so that you can contact them directly. If you are simply buying xanthan gum to use in your own handmade gluten-free baking mixes, you can easily find it as it will be labeled wheat/gluten free. You still won’t know exactly what it is made from, but you will know it is not wheat, if that is all you are worried about.
Also, if you are corn intolerant, I feel I must add that you should avoid xanthan gum, as well as all other products from Bob’s Red Mill. I do not know how they produce their xanthan gum, but I do know that they have a serious corn cross-contamination issue that renders every single one of their products corny. Trust me, I thought I was allergic to everything until I came across this fact, and after switching brands for many different products, I magically stopped reacting. Such a shame, because they really do have a fantastic variety of foods and can be bought just about anywhere.
If you want to avoid xanthan gum altogether, guar gum and locust bean gum (aka carob bean gum) are great substitutes that are extracted directly from said plants instead of being synthesized in a lab. They are easily interchangeable, meaning you would substitute the exact amount called for in the recipe. Easy peasy. Unfortunately, this means that you will have to make your baking mixes from scratch…but the silver lining is that you will know exactly what ingredients are found in your resulting baked yumminess. I like knowing things. You should, too. 🙂
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, dietician, or a scientist. I am simply a person living with corn and gluten intolerance, and I simply aim to share my personal findings and experiences with others in my same situation, and enlighten those who are interested in changing their diet and wanting to learn more about specific ingredients found in foods.