Here is another post in my series on food additives making it easier to identify and avoid these inflammatory ingredients. I have already written about artificial flavours and artificial sweeteners. Now I am exploring how artificial thickeners can cause harm.
Why Companies Use Them
Thickeners are one of many ingredients added to processed foods. They thicken foods by absorbing water and forming a gel-like consistency. They’re often used to make foods creamy without the fat.
Thickeners also tend to emulsify and stabilize foods they’re added to. Emulsification prevents fats and water from separating (i.e. oil & vinegar salad dressing versus a creamier emulsified dressing). Stabilizing helps the product have a longer shelf-life.
Where You Will Find Them
Thickeners are found in canned dairy-free milk, any milk that comes in a carton, baked goods, soups/sauces/gravies, puddings/ice cream, etc. Some are even added to dietary supplements!
Some Issues with Thickeners
Thickeners are polysaccharides, which means they’re long chains of sugars. And they’re typically difficult to digest.
They’re naturally-derived but are heavily processed to extract the compound. They are considered anti-nutrients because they reduce the absorption of dietary minerals like calcium.
Overall, for the general healthy population, small doses of these thickeners don’t seem to create massive health concerns. But, even though they’re extracted from whole foods, they’re far from it. There are lots of reasons to avoid them altogether.
Examples of Thickeners
- Xanthan Gum is made by a bacterium called Xanthomonas campestris. This bacterium can cause diseases in plants (e.g. leaf spot). The xanthan gum is created when the bacteria ferment. Xanthan gum is extracted from the liquid, dried, and ground.
- Because it’s like dietary fibre, xanthan gum can help reduce blood sugar spikes by slowing the speed that sugar can get into the bloodstream.
- In high doses, xanthan gum can act as a laxative and can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea. It also may act as a prebiotic, but more research is needed.
- Xanthan gum should be avoided by infants and people with severe wheat, corn, soy, or dairy allergies.
- Guar Gum is made from a legume called guar beans. These beans are split, and the endosperm is ground to get the guar gum.
- Like xanthan gum, guar gum may reduce blood sugar spikes, act as a laxative, and possibly a prebiotic.
- In rodents, guar gum has been shown to increase intestinal permeability (i.e. leaky gut).
- Cellulose Gum is made from wood pulp and cotton. To extract the cellulose gum, the pulp is processed with several chemicals, which are then removed.
- Cellulose gum can cause bacterial overgrowth and inflammation in animals who eat large amounts of it. It’s been suspected to be linked with IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease).
- Carrageenan is made from red seaweed that’s dried, ground, chemically treated, filtered, and dehydrated.
- Carrageenan can increase intestinal permeability (i.e. leaky gut). It has been linked to gastrointestinal inflammation, ulcers, and colitis-like conditions in animals. It has also been used in high doses to cause tumors in animals for cancer research.
- Unlike other thickeners, some rodent studies have shown that carrageenan can worsen blood sugar control issues.
- Lecithin most often comes from soybeans, but can also come from eggs, canola, or sunflower seeds. It’s heavily processed with chemicals and then purified.
- Lecithin also contains phospholipids, triglycerides, sterols, free fatty acids, and carotenoids.
- One of lecithin’s metabolites is linked to heart disease, however, it does lower serum cholesterol. Its overall impact on heart health is unknown.
Thickeners are highly processed food additives derived from nature. They are found in many processed foods because they thicken, reducing the amount of fat needed.
In the body, they can act as a dietary fibre, and may have some of the health benefits of that. But, they can also contribute to gastrointestinal issues, especially in higher doses. They can also be allergenic in small doses.