Strange Science: Sugar, Spice, Chemical X…?

Gluten Free PancakesWe recently bought a bag of xanthan gum. We wanted to try and make gluten free pancakes from scratch, and this was one of the ingredients. Xanthan gum is one of those things that appears on different food ingredient labels, but we had no idea what it was. Things like guar gum and locust gum are plant based. Surely, we thought, xanthan gum must be the same?


Xanthan gum gets its name from the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris, the source of “black rot” in leafy vegetables. Using a fermentation process, the bacterium produces a slimy substance that is dried and ground up into powder: xanthan gum.

Xanthan gum is popular in gluten free baking because it helps add floofiness (it’s a technical term) to your gluten free bread products. It’s also used to thicken liquids, like salad dressing or ice cream. Or tooth paste. Or cosmetics. Or drilling mud.

Some might think, “Wait, it’s black rot poop that is used in industrial drilling? How is that good?” You can find a lot of disagreement on the internet, some of it alarmist. We’re not making any promises either way. We only play mad scientists on TV. But what we do know is:

  • The FDA approved it as a food additive in 1968.
  • In 2011, they said premature babies shouldn’t have it.
  • It can make you gassy and have a laxative effect.

Weird and gross stuff goes into processed food. Heck, some unprocessed food is weird and gross when you think about it. (Hello, honey.) You could keep yourself up at night (and maybe write Lovecraft stories) researching castoreum, shellac, gelatin, trona, or any of the 39 ingredients in Twinkies. As the saying goes: you don’t want to know how the sausage is made*.

Meanwhile, those pancakes were delicious and floofy. We’ll happily fart more for floofy bread things. You can find the recipe we used at this web site.




* Unless, of course, your hobby is making homemade sausage. Then it’s just honing your craft.

Hot Cakes” by Randall Chancellor, is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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