The Truth About Food Gums

Remember that old wives' tale about swallowing gum? We all know it doesn't really take seven years to digest, but just like we still won't say "Bloody Mary" in the mirror three times, we continue to throw out our gum, just to be safe.

In true contradictory fashion, however, while we may be spitting out the Hubba Bubba five minutes after we popped it in our mouth, we're swallowing all sorts of other gums without even realizing it. And just while we're on the topic, why haven't they been able to make a grape gum that keeps its flavor longer than a Cyndi Lauper song? I mean, there's a helicopter on Mars, for f-sake. Come on, food science, keep up!

But this is one instance where the red-dye-allergic, gluten-free, mostly vegan, always-vegetarian-except-for-bone-broth crowd cannot claim superiority, because in addition to dozens of traditional foods, dairy and meat-based alternative "health foods" are almost always packed with these gums. This really shouldn't be a surprise. If we've learned anything in the post-Snackwells years (they’re back, by the way), it's that there is healthy food, and then there is (usually) heavily processed “Health Food,” and those are two very different things.

But have no fear! This is not another meandering into ways in which we're killing ourselves and how only diet, sleep, exercise, and a daily meditation practice can save us. In fact, for the most part, in small doses, most gums are probably okay for most of us. Yes, we realize that's a lot of qualifiers. Allow us to explain.

Xanthan Gum

We'll start with the most ominous gum among them. A research team discovered xanthan gum at the USDA in the early 1960s. It was given the green light to be used in foods in 1968 and has been binding, stabilizing, and thickening ever since. It stops oil from separating from water, thickens egg substitutes, and makes gluten-free products sticky instead of dry.

While most other gums are created from plants, xanthan gum is made in a lab from bacteria fermented sugars mixed with alcohol, dried, and turned into a powder. Like all gums, xanthan is a soluble fiber, which means your digestive system cannot break it down. Instead, as it passes through your body, it absorbs water and is turned into a kind of goo that can slow digestion. While that sounds gross–and it is–soluble fiber is necessary for overall health, providing food for the good bacteria in your gut and, as grandma says, "keeping things regular."

In fact, small studies have shown that by slowing digestion, xanthan gum may lower blood sugar and cholesterol when consumed in high doses, as well as aid in weight loss. But when you consider the fact that you're filling up on a manufactured goo that has zero calories or nutrients and literally just goes in your body and comes right on out, who cares if the small studies show a possible benefit? Instead-and especially if you have food allergies, as often the bacteria that makes xanthan gum is fed with wheat, corn, dairy, and soy- better to stick with real foods like beans, avocados, figs, apples, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and apricots, which not only will provide you with your soluble fiber intake for the day, but a plethora of other nutrients and vitamins your body needs.

Guar Gum, Locust Bean Gum, and Gum Arabic.

Right off the bat, these gums get a point over xanthan because they come from actual plants. Guar gum comes from beans; locust bean gum comes from the seeds of a carob tree, and gum Arabic from acacia tree sap. All being soluble fibers, like xanthan, most of the studies done on these gums suggest they may aid in weight loss and lower blood sugar. In fact, guar gum may even reduce diabetes' need for insulin injections and, along with locust bean gum, reduce bad cholesterol.

While none of these gums seem to pose any serious threat to our health, increased gas has been mentioned in many studies except for those done on gum Arabic. Instead, a four-week study on 54 healthy human volunteers found that gum Arabic can be used as a prebiotic that’s as powerful as inulin, stimulating the growth of good bacteria in your gut.

The Takeaway

These days, if you buy anything in a bottle or a bag, you're probably getting some kind of gum along with it. And that's probably not the most terrible thing in the world. But it's far better to buy foods that are filled with, well, food that can nourish your body and your brain.

For an easy, delicious solution that does both, try our gum-free functional mushroom bevies and chocolate bars.