October Unprocessed – Xanthan Gum and Halloween Candy

Bobs Red Mill Xanthan Gum

October Unprocessed is over. How did you do?

I feel like I did well this year. Past years helped me to figure out which brands I can grab when I go to the grocery store. Cooking from scratch is fun, but sometimes I just want to “dump and stir”. It still has to be tasty, though. Amy’s and Annie’s have a lot of options for canned and boxed goods. Not all of their stuff contains only unprocessed ingredients. One ingredient shows up over and over in nearly all brands of packaged foods, whether organic or conventional – xanthan gum.

Xanthan Gum: What Is It?

Xanthan gum shows up in salad dressings, baked goods, canned goods, boxed mixes, and just about everything. It keeps products like low-fat sour cream, mayonnaise, or salad dressing from separating in the package. It keeps things smooth in the freezer, so ice cream keeps that creamy texture. Its thickening properties make it an ideal substitute for gluten in gluten-free goods, although it can be made of wheat, so that needs to be checked before using.

Xanthan gum is an ingredient that is mostly natural, but I count it as processed. It is made by inoculating a sugar base with the Xanthomonas campestris bacteria. The bacteria ferments the sugar, producing a gel. Isopropyl alcohol is used to precipitate out a polymer, which is then dried and milled to make a powder. That powder is xanthan gum. (It becomes gummy when it is added to a liquid.)

Xanthan gum is useful in that it uses up leftovers from other foods. Cheese is very popular in this country, but the whey which is produced as a byproduct is not as popular. Nine pounds of whey is made for every one pound of cheese. The lactose in whey makes a good base for growing X. campestris and producing xanthan gum.

I said earlier in the month that I would avoid any ingredient that I couldn’t make in my home kitchen without a chemistry lab. I’ll have to add a little to that now and say that I also don’t want to use petri dishes to cultivate an ingredient.

Halloween Candy

You’re probably not surprised that most commercial candies are almost nothing but chemicals. Even the sweeteners used are usually not sugar, but high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, dextrose, and fructose. A lot of candy contains xanthan gum as a binder.

A few brands have popped up in the last few years with more natural ingredients. Justin’s Organic line of candies is my favorite. They make a nougat, peanut, and caramel candy covered with chocolate that is delicious and also a peanut butter cup with less packaging than the major brands. Unreal brand candies also have a variety of tasty goodies. Both those brands are available at Target.

Of course, I could always make my own candy, but I just don’t enjoy doing that. For Halloween at least, trick-or-treaters expect factory-wrapped treats or they won’t accept them.

Some Thoughts on October Unprocessed

The first year I participated in October Unprocessed, I expected it to be difficult. So many of the food lining grocery shelves is heavily processed. It turned out not to be so difficult after all. I had to switch up a few of the brands I used to purchase, but I was able to find other brands that tasted just as good.

I think also the societal trend towards more natural foods and simpler foods has helped me with this challenge. More of the major brands are looking at their ingredients list and reformulating products to have fewer chemicals in the list. Potato chips underwent a transformation a few years ago. It seems like that would just be potatoes, oil, and salt – and it is now – but potato chips used to contain all sorts of chemicals.

I don’t think I can completely avoid processed ingredients. When I eat at someone else’s home, for instance, I don’t want to question them on every ingredient in the food. Sometimes, I like to eat out and some restaurants list their ingredients on the web so that I can research beforehand, but many don’t.

Also, my husband likes to tease me about this challenge. On October 1, he brought home a theater-sized box of Hot Tamales, a cinnamon candy that I love love love! It sat on the kitchen counter staring at me for two weeks before my husband ate it. He has done something similar each year. It’s all in good fun, but he makes a good point. Some of my favorite foods of all are very processed.

But when I’m in control of the cooking, which is most of my meals, I won’t use foods containing processed ingredients.

  1. William Furr

    Are cheese, yogurt, beer, kimchi, vinegar, wine, etc. also processed foods then?

    Fermentation is a totally legit technique for producing natural foods. I don’t see how you would need a petri dish to make xanthan gum. It would be just like making yogurt or cheese at home.

    1. Heather Carr

      I agree that fermentation qualifies as unprocessed under these rules. All the foods you listed and others can be easily fermented at home with ordinary kitchen equipment. I don’t even have to purchase special cheese cultures or bread yeast (unless I want to).

      I abridged a bit in my description of the process for making xanthan gum, so I’m sorry for the confusion. The sugar base contains other ingredients, some of which would require a chemistry lab to create. Also, the X. campestris would need to be isolated from other microorganisms. It’s a bacteria that grows on vegetables and produces a black rot, so it is probably somewhere nearby. But it’s probably not the only microorganism that causes a black rot.

      That’s one big difference between making xanthan gum and making, say, bread, beer, or wine. Wild yeast shows up on its own. I don’t need special equipment to isolate it; I just need to watch it and make sure some other microorganism doesn’t take over, which rarely seems to happen here.

      All that said, I think xanthan gum is sort of on the line between processed and unprocessed. It’s possible that I could learn to make xanthan gum at home, but it also seems likely I would mistake the bacteria for another similar-looking bacteria. I don’t count a microscope as a kitchen tool, but anything lying around the house is fair game for my cooking experiments. :)

      1. William Furr

        Thanks for the more thorough explanation! Sorry, I could have clicked on the Wikipedia link before commenting.

        Black rot, yum. You can probably buy some pre-isolated, the same way you can buy yeast cultures. With a lot of fermentation recipes, it’s safer and more reliable to boil or UV-irradiate the medium and then introduce your desired microorganisms instead of relying on luck (or natural selection!).

        My friends do this when they make hard cider.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.