Take a guess: What substance is used by the petroleum industry to drill for oil, and also by bacteria to cause rotting in cauliflower and broccoli plants?

Hint: You probably eat it every day.

The substance, xanthan gum, has properties that aid not only oil drillers and nefarious bacteria, but also the mass-production of food, especially beverages.

Xanthan gum helps oil and water mix in salad dressings, for instance, and it allows the product to pour easily from the bottle, but also cling to lettuce leaves in large, round droplets. It suspends herbs and spices evenly in soups, and keeps the tiny air bubbles in whipped cream from popping. It's also a popular replacement for wheat gluten in gluten-free bread.

From black goop to your food

The gum gets its name from Xanthomonas campestris, the aforementioned bacterium that is infamous in agriculture for turning broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage into rotten, black goop. Xanthan gum is essential to Xanthomonas' success. The bacteria produce the slimy substance by attaching ring-shaped sugar molecules together in a specific, very stable configuration. The end result is a compound resistant to heat, dryness, ultraviolet rays, and destructive enzymes, which keeps the bacteria safe while they eat our veggies. It also causes plant tissues to wilt, making them easier to infect.

In the 1950s, U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers discovered how to turn this broccoli-devouring threat to our advantage. Today, Xanthomonas does its dirty work in giant fermenting vats, where the companies that make xanthan gum feed the bacteria glucose or other carbohydrates, wait for them to cook up the gum, and then heat the mixture, killing the microscopic "chefs". The gum is purified from the dead bacteria and plant matter, and then added to your salad dressing, ice cream and many other products.

The compound is a jack-of-all-trades, of sorts. For instance, what xanthan gum accomplishes in salad dressing – suspending particles and thickening the liquid while allowing it to pour freely – it also achieves on a grander scale in oil wells, into which drillers send the gum as part of a drilling fluid. Near the drill head, the fluid flows freely, but farther up the bore hole, it thickens, which allows the oil to clear up bits of rocky detritus.

Other uses

The gum is also a component of wallpaper glue, and stabilizes pigments in paint and ink.

But despite its industrial applications, xanthan gum is perfectly safe for most people to eat: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority both recognize it as harmless.

People who suffer from xanthan allergies find it necessary to avoid it, however, as do some people who are allergic to corn and soy, because trace amounts of these plants, when are often used in the xanthan fermentation process, can make their way into the final product.

Pass it on:  Unless you exhibit an allergic reaction to xanthan gum, you can assume it's safe for you.

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Food Facts explores the weird world of the chemicals and nutrients found in our food, and appears on MyHealthNewsDaily on Fridays.

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