Cara Investigates: The New 'No Gums!' Manifesto

Q:  Do you use xanthan or guar gums in your baking?

I do, and I have since I started baking gluten free.  Gluten is the protein composite in wheat, barley, and rye that provides many foods with their shape and elasticity. So logically, if we bake using flours that don't contain gluten, we need to find some substance to mimic the effect.  I've read countless disastrous accounts of g-f baking where someone forgot to add such a substance, and they were left with a giant pan of crumbs.

There are a few replacement options, the most popular of which has seemed to be gums: xanthan and guar. Gums are complex little carbohydrates that are naturally produced through fermentation, expressly for use as thickening and binding agents in food.  Most g-f baking mixes for breads, cakes, and muffins contain at least one type of gum, at a ratio of something like 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon to one cup of g-f flour. I can personally attest to using xanthan gum in all my baked goods, with satisfying results.  An 8 oz. package will run you around $11, but mine has lasted for at least a year.

Sounds legit, right?  So what's this new NO GUMS baking trend circulating the internets?

I first came across the topic over at Gluten Free Canteen, where the author takes a very serious pledge to strike it from her baking forever, and even retrospectively from already-composed recipes.  She alluded to a similar revelation by Gluten Free Girl and The Chef, who are also working on developing alternatives, even though many of the recipes in their new cookbook call for gums (mmm...that pizza recipe will be Test-Driven here soon).  Apparently, people carefully following a g-f diet are still having problems when eating foods with gums - symptoms similar to those when gluten is consumed - and they experience relief by cutting them out, too.

With a little more research, I read that while guar gum is a bean derivative, xanthan gum can be derived from corn, soy, OR EVEN WHEAT!  This might explain why some of our g-f friends are having problems with it as a food additive, depending on the origin and quality standards of the processing, since corn and soy are also frequently co-intolerances to gluten intolerance.  Some xanthan gums, like Bob's Red Mill (the one I use), are certified g-f which means they've been audited by a certifying organization and contain less than the lowest detectable amount of gluten.  You can read more about g-f certification here

But then, depending on how deep your conspiracy theories go, we don't know in truth what goes on in the certification process, or how often products are audited. Many manufacturers of g-f products also make products with wheat, or at least use machinery where gluten ingredients have been processed.  I've never had issues with Bob's xanthan, but that doesn't mean other people haven't, or that other gums are held to similarly high inspection standards.  

The next question is then, so um, how do I hold my baked goods together?  Many vegan bakers can attest to the fact that they've never used gums, so long as they're using a flaxseed and water substitution for eggs. Other people are now jumping on chia seeds, the latest omega-3 health trend, because of their interesting jelled properties when combined with hot water.  I also think many baked goods, depending on the consistency, might not even need to rely on a binding agent, if eggs are used and/or the baked goods are really dense.  For instance, the flour-less chocolate cake I make has no gums, but that baby stays a solid chunk of chocolate heaven, even after being frozen and defrosted (recipe soon).

Perhaps the bottom line is, as with any food intolerance, if you cut something out and feel better, then that's what works for you.  Personally, I like what xanthan gum does for muffins, pancakes, quick breads, and cakes, although I wouldn't mind a less dense texture in my sandwich bread, which is a recipe mystery I'm still trying to crack. It's also interesting to see what people come up with as substitutes - if they offer pronounced benefits in texture and/or nutrition (as flaxseed definitely does), then they're worth investigating....more to follow on that point.

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