Xanthan Gum and Protein Powder - Explained - Why is Xanthan Gum in Protein Powder? AGN Roots Grass-Fed Whey Protein

Xanthan Gum and Protein Powder

By 2027, the protein supplement market is on track to reach a worth of $32.6 billion [1]. A market statistic around protein powder consumption is understandable as everyone desires the benefits in this age of health and wellness.

What you don't hear about is the exploding market of ingredient additives. The massive growth of powdered promises in plastic tubs and perceived nutrition comes with commensurate popularity of all the less attractive ingredients, such as Xanthan (pronounced ZAN-thin) Gum.

This article will cover all the basics for you to make an informed decision about xanthan gum in protein powders, including many of these commonly asked questions -

  • Are there benefits to consuming xanthan gum?
  • What purpose does xanthan gum serve?
  • Is xanthan gum safe to drink?
  • Why is xanthan gum in so many protein products?

    What is Xanthan Gum?

    Xanthan gum is a thickening agent and works very well to stabilize a range of industrial, food, and health products. If xanthan gum sounds foreign to you, you may want to give some of the most common products in your home a quick perusal; you are likely to find xanthan gum in your lotions, cosmetics, toothpaste, salad dressings, and also in your ice creams.

    First discovered in 1963, xanthan gum is a well-researched and widely used food additive. According to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the food additive may be safely used in food for human consumption [2].

    Xanthan gum comes from fermented sugar. Specifically, sugar ferments via a vegetable bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris; the resulting gloopy substance paired with alcohol exposure will form a solid called Xanthan Gum.

    Once it's dried, xanthan gum becomes a soluble fiber powder ready for use in the product of choice. When added to liquid, it disperses and creates a thicker, creamier product.

    The shelf life is also improved in products with xanthan gum due to its stabilizing benefits. Xanthan Gum tends to retain moisture which can help keep baked goods tasting fresh; however, this benefit comes with the propensity of microbial growth. 

    Why is Xanthan Gum in Protein Powder?

    With the technological advancements made in food science over the last decade, even a seasoned whey protein aficionado may find it challenging to tell the difference based on taste between protein sourced the right way and a protein bolstered by the perfect additives.

    When todays' pop-up protein brands launch a diary protein rarely, does the lineup not contain heavily built indulgent flavors. The flavors that mask a poorly sourced protein powder the best include those that resemble our sweetest desserts, such as:  

    • Peanut Butter
    • Chocolate
    • Birthday Cake

    The more innovative brands have caught on that they can market their naked or raw flavor using a higher quality ingredient and then use pragmatic inference to build a significant variety of low-grade albeit highly flavored products.

    Why Brands Flavor Whey Protein?

    The answer to this question is multifaceted; in short, the two most dominant reasons why the majority of whey protein brands use over bearing flavor systems include:

    1. Meeting consumer demand
    2. The whey smells Terrible without Covering it up

    The first reason is rather apparent. Flavored proteins are as popular as any classic dessert; there's a large market for great-tasting sweets.

    The second reason is the basis of this article. The whey protein boom of today is a direct reflection of the boom in factory farming. Not all whey is equal as every brand repeats the same marketing points making it impossible for the consumer to make an informed choice. 

    There is a reason why you will never see a "naked whey," a "raw whey," or an "unflavored whey" that contains an additive like Xanthan Gum. Brands that want the consumer to understand what a great product tastes like are not trying to change your perception by packing their whey with texture-altering additives. The brands that have not invested in sourcing but rather the advancement in flavor technology are the brands whose existence center around taste. 

    The use of xanthan gum in protein powder is not to bolster nutritional value; instead, the motivation behind its use is to add value to the perception of nutritional value. It's incredibly cheap, and if the goal is to mask grit and overcooked diary power, it's the perfect additive.  

    Xanthan gum is rarely a standalone additive because, in addition to modifying texture, gritty low-quality whey almost always puts off an unpleasant and non-fresh odor as well. Thus, where there is xanthan gum, there is a solid and dominant flavoring system applied to the whey as well.

    Learn More: Factory Farming Explained

    Why Does My Whey Smell Bad?

    Does your whey protein routinely smell like cardboard, wet-dog, grass, or cabbage?

    Although several processes and chemicals impact the final smell of a dry whey powder, the most dominant off-flavors above are due to lipid oxidation. A fancy way of characterizing the word "rotting."

    To put this in terms of usable information, At AGN Roots, we gas-flush the oxygen out of our pouches before sealing to drastically reduce the whey protein powder's exposure to air (part oxygen). As oxidation occurs in the fat residue (lipids), you can imagine, the more fat within the product, the greater the reactive potential and the shorter the shelf life (unless you like cardboard, at AGN Roots, we do not judge).

    At a very high level, this oxidation process goes by the term "peroxidation." Peroxidation occurs when molecular oxygen reacts with organic compounds and naturally goes to work breaking them down.

    Once whey protein is in powder form (concentrated & dried), the rate of this oxidation process depends on heat & oxygen exposure and fat content.

    A side-by-side comparison of real-life factors at play that, if not paying attention to, has the potential of creating a worst-case purchasing scenario for a consumer is on display via the table below.

     Best Case Middle Worst Case
    Packaging Material  Alox / Foil Pouch (air tight) Plastic Tub (not air tight) Cardboard / Kraft tube (Breathable)

    Packaging Options

    Vacuum Sealed (No Air)

    Gas-Flushed (Oxygen Displaced)

    Air Filled Tub (Full of Oxygen)

    Fat %

    Whey Isolate (no fat)

    Protein Blend Whey Protein Concentrate
     Sourcing Grass-fed Organic Factory Farmed

    Storage

    Cool and Dry

    Room Temperature

    Hot & Humid


    Why Whey Protein Isolate has Longer Shelf Life?

    If comparing whey protein concentrate to whey protein isolate, WPC contains much more unsaturated fat (oleic, linoleic, and linolenic acids) thus is much more likely to start smelling sooner than later. Without lipids, there is no lipid-oxidation. 

    Why Does Whey from Grass-Fed Cows Smell Better?

    Whey protein origin matters a great deal with regards to oxidation and quality. Being skeptical of a brand that touts "grass-fed" on the label yet proceeds to deliver an intensely flavored product loaded with xanthan gum does warrant a few questions and should raise red flags.

    When cows feed on natural grasses, the resulting milk is chock-full of beta-carotene. Various studies show beta-carotene as a potent inhibitor of chemical oxidation [6].

    Pair this fact with the natural antioxidants & phytonutrients found in whey with grass-fed bovine origins the advantages become more evident. Grass-fed Whey isolate protects itself from assuming oxidized olfactory notes much better than whey without the protective properties.

    Learn More: Phytonutrients are in Grass-Fed Whey
    Learn More: Why Grass-Fed Whey

    How to Gauge Whey Protein Quality?

    When reconstituted with water, a great protein powder will build a naturally frothy structure that grabs air when mixed, similar to an old-fashioned milkshake. The particles can suspend naturally, and a substantial passing of time is needed for particles to drop from the solution or the emulsion to break.  

    If you are looking for tricks to spot quality based on the label alone, look no further than the ingredient declaration or the packaging. There are three acceptable whey protein ingredients in our opinion -

    1. Whey Protein Isolate/Concentrate
    2. Sunflower Lecithin
    3. Digestive Enzyme

    As far as the packaging, If you spot a niche brand that is selling their "grass-fed" dairy powder protein in a giant plastic tub filled with air or a cardboard tube, say to yourself, "go-fish" and continue browsing. We suppose that if the goal is to expose the whey protein to as much oxygen as possible, these tubs or highly permeable cardboard tubes are the champions. 

    Learn More: The Purpose of Sunflower Lecithin Explained
    Learn More: Digestive Enzymes for Whey Protein

    When Low-Quality Behaves like Sand

    The first thing consumers notice about a low-quality dairy powder other than the smell is the tendency for the particles to behave similarly to sand in water, yielding a gritty texture. Like most sand, when it is swirling after the spoon leaves the glass, there is an illusion of dispersion; however, the solids build on the bottom when the solution becomes static.

    It's important to note that the slip-velocity of these particles sinking to the base of your shaker is not a problem that requires a chemical emulsifier like lecithin. Typical low-quality powders are cooked well beyond having healthy hydrophilic and hydrophobic ends in need of an adaptor.

    Rather than having a frozen banana in your pocket, the addition of xanthan gum in your protein powder is the easy solution. As a viscosifier, xanthan gum will help suspend the whey into the liquid and, at a minimum, slow it down from falling like a rock. In short, it makes your shake thick, like a frozen banana smoothie, but without the banana.

    How to Make a Naturally Thick Smoothie?

    Using a heavier mixer, such as full-cream milk, almond milk, coconut milk, or adding cream, can create a more decadent protein shake without consuming xanthan gum, or any gums for that matter.

    Adding banana or avocado to the shake not only adds nutrition but also thickens the shake.  If you add frozen fruits to the magic bullet, that is also a natural way to produce a thick shake. 

    What Are the Benefits of Xanthan Gum? 

    As such a popular ingredient, there must be some clear-cut advantages to using xanthan gum. In summary, the "health" benefits to the consumer may be marginal, while the "monetary" benefits to big business are significant.

    For the manufacturer, the advantages are clear, perceived nutrition that is cheap to make and can sell as "high-end," taking full advantage of the loose dietary supplement and federal trade commission labeling laws. For supplement companies, the benefits are profit margin.

    For the rest of us, summarizing the mostly anecdotal health "benefits" of consuming xanthan gum is a brief exercise. For every article citing a study with a sample size of four mice, there is a study that counters equally. Nonetheless, the information below is consistent with xanthan gum's latest "benefits," mostly advertised by those selling xanthan gum.

    If you are wondering if Xanthan Gum is the next superfood, the answer is, no, xanthan gum is closer to an anti-superfood classification than a superfood.

    Does Xanthan Gum Lowers Blood Sugar?

    One of the main benefits, albeit implied, shown by human and animal studies is a possible reduction in blood sugar. The theory is that xanthan gum creates a viscous substance in the gut that slows digestion, including sugar absorption..

    For some people, this is a desirable property. However, it's not always in line with the goals of someone drinking protein shakes. For example, if you're coming off a fresh working, you may not want to feel bloated and also may feel the onslaught of low blood sugar coming.

    Furthermore, it's widely known that there is no need to 'control' your blood sugar unless you have been diagnosed with a blood sugar problem. Lowering your blood sugar through a protein shake could leave you with little energy and an unnatural fluctuation in your body's natural regulation.

    Does Xanthan Gum Decrease Cholesterol?

    A small study of 5 men found that high doses of xanthan gum can decrease cholesterol. However, the study participants took ten times the usual daily dose of xanthan gum for over 20 days, and their cholesterol resulted in a 10% reduction.

    Although a significant reduction, the effects of such a high dose of xanthan gum can cause severe bloating and gastrointestinal pain. This dose would not be feasible in a protein shake, so there would likely be no significant reduction in cholesterol [3].

    Furthermore, a safe amount of dietary fiber can outperform a dangerous dose of xanthan gum any day of the week.

    Does Xanthan Gum Aid Weight Loss?

    Because of the viscous gel that forms in the intestines and stomach, xanthan gum can create a feeling of fullness that helps with weight loss. In addition, Xanthan gum has prebiotic effects in the gut that can nurture good gut bacteria, which also serves your health.

    If you're drinking protein shakes in the absence of exercise, xanthan gum may be a great addition. First, however, think about whether you want this during a workout. You don't exercise after a large meal for a reason, and a xanthan gum-filled shake can have a similar effect.

    Does Xanthan Gum Fight Cancer?

    Preliminary evidence suggests that xanthan gum might help fight cancer, but more research is needed to confirm this. A study of mice showed that doses of xanthan gum slowed tumor growth and increased their life span. However, there are no human studies to confirm this finding [4].

    Does Xanthan Gum Regulate Bowel Movements?

    The final benefit of xanthan gum is that it helps regulate bowel movements in some people. It draws water into the intestine to create a bulkier and soft stool that is easier to pass but can dehydrate you in the process. 

    What Are the Side Effects of Xanthan Gum?

    Research shows scattered results regarding the known side-effects associated with consuming xanthan gum. Most supplements that contain xanthan gum are sourced poorly and include various factors related to sourcing or harmful ingredients that can trigger far more significant side effects than can be pegged on xanthan gum alone.

    Therefore, at a high level, as a standalone entity, we do believe xanthan gum is negligible if you are on the fence about a particular product or brand.

    Keep in mind, although it is rare when represented in the limited quantities found in a single serving of a protein powder, the documented side effects of consuming xanthan gum in protein powder include:

    • Needing the toilet more often
    • Passing larger volumes of stools 
    • Increased gas
    • Abdominal pain 
    • Lethargy caused by altered gut bacteria
    • Constant feeling of fullness

    Some people experience extreme side effects, some no side effects at all. However, if you're prone to gastrointestinal discomfort, it may be worth avoiding xanthan.

    The good news is, these symptoms are easy to spot and reverse by stopping consuming xanthan. So if you've got a protein powder containing xanthan, keep a close eye on any gastrointestinal symptoms. 

    Learn More: Side Effects of Whey Protein Powder

    Is Xanthan Gum Healthy or Safe? 

    For most people, xanthan gum doesn't have any health or safety risks. You can consume xanthan gum in high quantities without danger. However, there are some considerations for certain groups of people. 

    1. People With Allergies and Intolerances - Xanthan gum itself isn't a common allergen. However, because it comes from sugar, people need to be careful about the source of the sugar. Sugar is often derived from wheat, soy, corn, and dairy (lactose). People with severe allergies or intolerances to these foods should avoid xanthan gum unless they are sure of the sugar source.
    2. Infants - Young infants should avoid xanthan gum (historically used as a thickener in formula milk). Infants are at a higher risk of infection than children and adults, and xanthan gum can increase the risk of complications. Xanthan gum in the formula for premature infants is linked to an increased risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis, which is life-threatening [5].
    3. People With Certain Health Conditions - Because xanthan gum reduces blood sugar, people with diabetes should only consume it under the supervision of a healthcare professional. Anyone on medications or with underlying health conditions should check with a doctor before using xanthan gum.
    4. Vegetarians and Vegans - Xanthan gum isn't a meat or dairy product, so you might assume that it's suitable for plant-based diets. However, the process for manufacturing may involve animal products. 

    Is Xanthan Gum Vegan Friendly?

    The answer depends; however it's safe to assume, "No, unless clearly stated, animal byproducts are part of the xanthan gum manufacturing process."

    Some protein powders that contain xanthan gum use a chicken lysozyme, and others use whey (a dairy byproduct). Check with the manufacturer before consuming powders if you're vegetarian or vegan.

    How Should You Use Xanthan Gum?

    The benefits of xanthan gum are very appealing to some people. Promises of weight loss, fullness, and controlled blood sugar are hard to resist.
    However, protein powders will not contain the amounts that can deliver these desired benefits. If the goal is to increase your xanthan gum intake, do so with a separate supplement.

    If you're looking for a weight loss aid, try investing in xanthan gum or fiber capsules instead. Try to avoid taking them alongside exercise as they may make you feel bloated and actively dehydrate you, reducing your performance. 

    If you're using xanthan gum in cooking, there's little to worry about as long as you don't have allergies or intolerances. You can add as little or much as you like to get the desired texture of food.

    What is a Xanthan Gum Substitute?

    If you've decided to avoid xanthan gum, there's good news. You can add several alternatives to your protein powder to get the texture benefits of xanthan gum without buying low-quality protein.

    Chia Seeds - Chia seeds are an effective natural way to thicken up your protein powder. Not only do they have a thickening effect, but they're packed full of antioxidants, fiber, micronutrients, and healthy gut bacteria. 
    For the best effect, soak them in water first and then add them to your shake and blend. 

    Egg Whites - Egg whites are the most common natural, at-home thickener. They have a very similar effect to xanthan gum. However, they can leave an unpleasant taste in the shake, and they aren't suitable for vegans. 

    Agar-Agar - Agar-agar comes from seaweed and is a gelatinous substance that's an excellent xanthan gum alternative suitable for vegans and vegetarians. There are fewer gastrointestinal side effects reported from the use of agar-agar compared to xanthan gum. 

    Guar Gum - Guar gum comes from legumes and has a similar consistency to corn starch. It's gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, and often used in cooking. However, be aware that it does have a laxative quality. 

    Aquafaba - If you have a tin of chickpeas at home, you have aquafaba. It's the thick gelatinous water that the chickpeas sit in. You can add it to protein shakes, cooking, and baking for a chick consistency.

    Don't Let Xanthan Gum Hold You Back

    It is clear that the benefits of xanthan gum don't stretch to being an effective ingredient in protein powders. Yet you'll still find it in products and shakes you buy from many popular retailers.

    If you want to get all the benefits from a great grass-fed whey protein powder, it's best to avoid flavored products, xanthan gum, and other ineffective additives and focus solely on finding an unflavored & unsweetened Irish Grass-Fed whey that is certified. 

    Any questions at all please contact us.

    AGN Roots Grass-Fed Whey Team

    References
    [1] James, Sherry. “Protein Supplement Market Worth $32.6 Billion by 2027: CAGR: 8.0% : Grand View Research, Inc.” Protein Supplement Market Worth $32.6 Billion by 2027 | CAGR: 8.0%, Grand View Research, Inc. , 25 Mar. 2020, www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/protein-supplement-market-worth-32-6-billion-by-2027--cagr-8-0--grand-view-research-inc-301029494.html. 
    [2] Health & Human Services, U.S Department of. “CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.” Accessdata.fda.gov, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 10 Nov. 2020, www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=172.695.  
    [3] Eastwood, M A et al. “The dietary effects of xanthan gum in man.” Food additives and contaminants vol. 4,1 (1987): 17-26. doi:10.1080/02652038709373610
    [4] Takeuchi, Ario et al. “Oral administration of xanthan gum enhances antitumor activity through Toll-like receptor 4.” International immunopharmacology vol. 9,13-14 (2009): 1562-7. doi:10.1016/j.intimp.2009.09.012
    [5] Woods, C W et al. “Development of necrotizing enterocolitis in premature infants receiving thickened feeds using SimplyThick®.” Journal of perinatology : official journal of the California Perinatal Association vol. 32,2 (2012): 150-2. doi:10.1038/jp.2011.105 
    [6] Brown, W. Carson, and L.M. Thurston. “A Review of Oxidation in Milk and Milk Products as Related to Flavor.” Journal of Dairy Science, Elsevier, 17 July 2010, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022030240955552.
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