There are oh-so-many food additives in the grocery store these days. Even “paleo” labels are full of artificial ingredients. Thickeners are one of those. These are highly processed additives used in highly processed foods (you see where I’m going with this, right?). So…could these thickeners be causing an autoimmune flare?
What are thickeners?
Thickeners are often used to get a rich and creamy consistency without having to add a lot of fat. That’s one of the main reasons for things like xanthan gum and carrageenan.
Thickeners also tend to emulsify and stabilize foods they’re added to. Emulsification allows fats and water to mix better and prevents them from separating (i.e., oil/vinegar salad dressing versus a thicker or creamier emulsified dressing). And “stabilizing” helps the product have a longer shelf-life before the “best before” date.
Thickeners are often found in canned dairy-free milk (coconut) and any milk that comes in a carton, baked goods, soups/sauces/gravies, puddings/ice cream, etc.
These thickeners are polysaccharides, which means they’re long chains of many (poly) saccharides (sugars). They’re typically difficult to digest, which makes them similar to dietary fiber. That can be problematic for those with autoimmune since so much is often happening in the gut.
They’re Paleo, right?
Even though these thickeners are naturally-derived, they’re also heavily processed to extract the compound. Because of that, they’re considered anti-nutrients because they reduce the absorption of dietary minerals (not ideal). That’s also partly why they are eliminated on AIP and other autoimmune diets- because they’re depleting foods.
Overall, for the general healthy population, in small doses, these thickeners don’t seem to create massive health concerns. But if you’re reading this, you likely have an autoimmune disease. So, let’s see what’s in them.
5 Common Thickeners
Xanthan gum is made by a bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris. This bacteria can cause diseases in plants (e.g., leaf spot). The xanthan gum is created when the bacteria ferment sugar. Xanthan gum is extracted from the liquid, dried, and ground.
Because it’s like fiber, xanthan gum has been shown to help reduce blood sugar spikes. Its thickening properties can help slow the absorption of sugar, therefore slowing the speed 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 (food for our friendly gut microbes), 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 legumes 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). So my UC and Crohn’s people? AVOID this!
Carrageenan is made from red seaweed that’s dried, ground, chemically treated, filtered, and dehydrated. It can increase intestinal permeability (i.e., leaky gut) which for autoimmune, is already a problem.
It’s 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.
One of lecithin’s metabolites (what your body metabolizes lecithin into once it’s absorbed) is linked to heart disease. On the other hand, it does lower serum cholesterol. Overall, the jury seems to be out on its heart health effects, but at least it’s not linked to gastrointestinal issues.
Well, I’m sure you can tell by my tone already that these are not ideal additives. They seem harmless and are even found in paleo goodies quite often. But, that doesn’t make them quality choices. With an autoimmune disease, your system is already compromised. So my thinking is, why do we possibly want to compromise it more?
If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you’d know that I’m a realist when it comes to food (although gluten is my one non-negotiable with autoimmune). So even though I don’t love these thickeners, on occasion, in small amounts, you’ll likely be fine. But, become a savvy label reader and when possible, find ones without these additives.