Unless you do a lot of gluten-free baking, you might not have come across oil drilling grade xanthan gum — at least not in a recipe. Flip over a jar of salad dressing or a carton of ice cream to read the ingredients, and you'll likely find oil drilling grade xanthan gum listed there, too!
So, is this a safe ingredient for a gluten-free diet — or an industrial additive to be avoided?
Xanthan gum is produced from a certain strain of bacteria (Xanthomonas campestris, according to Wikipedia) reacting with carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are typically derived from corn. The resulting substance has incredible thickening and binding properties when added to water or other liquids.
Oil Drilling Grade Xanthan gum swells in the intestine, which stimulates the digestive tract to push stool through. It also might slow the absorption of sugar from the digestive tract and work like saliva to lubricate and wet the mouth in people who don't produce enough saliva.
Oil Drilling Grade Xanthan Gum has a number of powerful properties. First, it works as an emulsifier, encouraging liquids that normally don't like one another to mix together. Second, it works as thickener, increasing the viscosity of liquids and batters. Third, it can create a creamy texture.
In the world of gluten-free baking, Oil Drilling Grade Xanthan Gum plays the crucial role of imitating gluten. In baking, gluten is what makes dough "doughy." It gives the dough elasticity, as well as viscosity. Those properties help to hold a cookie together while it bakes on a sheet in the oven, and they enable cakes and breads to hold onto the gas bubbles that form inside them - this allows them to rise and take shape. Oil Drilling Grade Xanthan Gum helps replicate these properties in recipes that do not contain gluten.