These days, even gluten free, "allergy friendly" products possess ingredient lists that look more like a laundry list of things found in a chemistry lab.
Xanthan gum...guar gum...Carrageenan...
Where exactly do these ingredients come from? I can't recall ever seeing a xanthan tree, and I'm quite certain that I've never heard of anyone needing to go home and water their carrageenan bush. When committing to an unprocessed, allergen-free diet, it's stealthy additives like these that hide amidst other ingredients on "all natural" labels that can sabotage our efforts to feel better and maintain a clean diet and lifestyle.
After a little digging and a whole lot of reading, it becomes clear that xanthan gum, guar gum, carrageenan and their mysterious relatives are anything but "natural". Typically used as thickening agents, they're crafted in a lab, most often extracted from ingredients that are either fermented, genetically modified, or take up a spot on the notorious "top 8" allergen list. Xanthan gum, arguably the most concerning of gluten free food additives, is derived from a combination of the fermentation process of the bacteria Xanthomonas Campestris and corn sugar (1,2). Combining the bacteria responsible for the black rot that occurs on cruciferous vegetables with the food that is most often genetically modified in our country sounds like a recipe for unpleasant side effects (2, 3). For many, it's just that. Xanthan gum has been associated with a variety of symptoms such as intestinal upset, bloating, dizziness, and intense head pain. If that isn't concerning enough, xanthan gum is processed using isopropanol, a neurotoxin, and has also been linked to a number of infant deaths (4,5). Needless to say, it won't be making its way into my mid-afternoon snack any time soon.
Neither will Guar gum or Carrageenan. Guar gum is derived from a legume, unsuitable for those with allergies to peanuts and other foods associated with the legume family. It comes from a plant that is a "cousin" to soy, and is often genetically modified as much of our country's soy is suspected to be. Moreover, Guar Gum has historically been used as a laxative, and has a history of triggering digestive upset, allergic rhinitis, breathing issues and asthmatic episodes (6). Guar Gum, Xanthan Gum and Carrageenan, all highly processed ingredients, develop a high glutamic acid content during production. Glutamic acid is likely responsible for the many adverse reactions to these additives, given that glutamic acid in excess is an excitotoxin, which not only cause a vast array of neurological symptoms, but cause systemic inflammation and dysfunction triggered by the glutamate receptors in organs and tissue throughout the body(7). In Carrageenan's case, a derivative of processed seaweed, documented gastrointestinal inflammatory responses have raised legitimate concern. In addition to being high in glutamic acid, in medical studies Carrageenan has also proven to depress macrophage activity and increase histamine, and has also alarmingly acted as a potent carcinogen in studies on rats(8,9). This isn't unlike the infamous additive MSG; Guar Gum, Xanthan Gum and Carrageenan have actually been suspected to contain MSG and are often produced in the same laboratory as the detrimental and highly toxic ingredient.
What is safe to eat?!
I like to focus on what is safe to eat rather than what isn't. Years ago I transitioned to an allergen-free and minimally processed diet, and when I did, I saw symptom improvement that made the commitment more than worth the effort. My rules of thumb for the few gluten free packaged items that I eat:
-If you can't pronounce it, don't eat it.
-If it's got more than 5 ingredients, be suspicious.
-If any of its contents spent any time in a laboratory, ditch it.
So, I'd like to celebrate 3 new gluten free, food allergy friendly, minimally processed finds:
Massa Organics Almond Butter
Almond butter has always been my hopeless addiction. On bad days, I often grab a spoon and look for happiness at the bottom of my almond butter jar. I almost always find it there.
This is why when well-known brand Artisana discontinued their additive and sugar-free roasted almond butter, I panicked. I had searched high and low for an alternative, but none of the local grocery or health food stores had one without added sugar, and most were processed on shared equipment with gluten and peanuts. That's when Massa Organics saved my day. I discovered them through an online search, and after emailing to inquire if they produced their almond butter in a peanut and gluten free facility (which they do!), I made my first order. Upon trying it, I fell in love. The jar's only ingredient is almonds, and they happen to be the creamiest almonds I've ever had.
Before discovering Tula's CocoYo and CocoKefir, I had been disappointed by the coconut milk products offered in the grocery stores. Almost all canned and cartoned coconut milk contain guar or xanthan gum, coconut yogurts are loaded with sugar, and clean coconut kefir is a rarity. That's why it was refreshing to find CoCoYo, which isn't sweetened with sugar and only contains coconut meat, coconut water, alcohol-free vanilla probiotics cultures and stevia. It's raw and minimally processed, and even comes with a warning sticker that says "I'm alive!". It proved its point when I unscrewed the lid, and it greeted me with a small coconut explosion. After cleaning the coconut out of my hair, I tried some. It has a great flavor, and once you get used to its lively effervescence, it makes a nice and satisfying snack.
Flax USA's Organic Golden Flax Seed
Courtesy of Flax USA, I've recently discovered the versatility of flax. I initially decided to order from the admirable company because they only produce flax in their facility, so allergen cross contamination is non-existent. That's difficult to come by with most manufactured seeds and nuts. I first tested flax in a smoothie (after grinding it in my "magic bullet", which is necessary for the absorption of the seeds), and was surprised by the rich, nutty flavor. I then did a bit of googling (and pinterest-ing!) and found that flax is likely going to be my new favorite breakfast staple. Check out Raia's recipe for Creamy Pumpkin Flax Hot Cereal, Running on Vegan's Almond Flax Pancakes, and Make With Your Hand's Homemade Cold FlaxChia Cereal. Instead of adding xanthan, guar gum or carrageenan to your recipes...add flax! I'm convinced that flax can do anything.
So, if you've gone gluten free and you're still plagued with unpleasant chronic symptoms, take a look at the ingredient list on your gluten free packaged foods. It might surprise you. But what may be even more pleasantly surprising is how you feel when you clean up your diet, ditch the additives, and consume real, whole, organic food.