On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Xanthan Gum and Other Additives

DEAR DR. BLONZ: I often see xanthan gum in the ingredients lists of salad dressings and chocolate syrup. There are other types of gums in processed foods as well. My naturopath said that if these are eaten, the gums can build up in the intestines and cause problems. Is that true? -- S.F., New York City

DEAR S.F.: Vegetable gums such as agar, locust bean gum, tragacanth, xanthan gum, and pectin are used as food additives to help with texture and spreadability, and provide a slippery “mouthfeel” such as the one generally associated with butter and similar products.

These compounds are built like a carbohydrate, but they’re constructed in a way that digestive enzymes cannot attack, which means they stay too large to be absorbed and won’t directly contribute calories. There is no evidence or reason to believe that gums build up and cause toxic reactions at the levels consumed as additives in foods. If the testing prior to their approval had revealed such evidence, they would have never been approved as additives. But gums can be acted upon by the flora in our large intestines, so there is a chance consuming them will produce brief, minor digestive effects, including gas and laxation.

You mentioned xanthan gum in particular, which is made from a specially fermented corn syrup, itself made from corn starch. It was created at a USDA research station in Peoria, Illinois, as part of a project to find new uses for surplus corn. Xanthan gum helps to thicken the texture of food, and it has proven to be quite versatile. Aside from syrups and salad dressings, it is found in puddings, sauces, baked goods and desserts. Because it is made from corn, xanthan gum should be avoided by individuals allergic to corn, but aside from that, there do not appear to be any problems associated with its use.

Use caution listening to advice from individuals who have a history of dubious statements.

DEAR DR. BLONZ: My question is whether adding a small bit of sugar -- say, a teaspoon or so -- changes the acidity of tomato sauce. My partner insists that is what happens, but I remain skeptical. If sugar caused this change, what would be the chemical reaction? -- S.T., Columbia, South Carolina

DEAR S.T.: Added sugar would help offset the dominance of the acid taste of a tomato, but it doesn’t react with or neutralize the acid in any significant way.

DEAR DR. BLONZ: I am soliciting your review of using Java tea for weight loss. One product says the tea contains natural fat-burning enzymes, and that these enzymes get absorbed and help release fat cells from storage areas. It says the tea also contains flavonoids that clean and unclog the large intestine’s mucous membranes, which, by themselves, can help you to lose 3 to 4 pounds within the first 48 hrs. Is there anything to this, or is it a myth and theoretical? -- R.P., Chicago

DEAR R.P.: While tea contains flavonoids, which are healthful phytochemicals, the rest is filed under “myth and theoretical.” Tea is a healthful beverage, but the bits about fat-burning enzymes and intestinal “mucous membrane cleansing” are nonsense.

Claims are easy to make, especially when you don’t back them up with objective evidence. Drink the tea if you enjoy it, but I wouldn’t waste my time or money if these claims are the only motivation.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.