We are not fans of processed food products around here, given the many undesirable health effects that have emerged over the years: disrupted bowel flora composition from synthetic sweeteners like aspartame, disruption of the intestinal mucus lining by maltodextrin, changes in bowel flora composition and dispersal of the intestinal mucus lining by synthetic emulsifying agents such as polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose.
Those last two items, the emulsifying agents polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose, are especially troublesome, making their way into many processed foods such as ice cream, peanut butter, even pickles. The potent emulsifying properties of these two food additives disrupts the mucus lining of the intestinal tract, allows bacteria to contact the intestinal lining that triggers intestinal inflammation, and leads to profound changes in bowel flora composition. The bowel flora of someone repeatedly exposed to these compounds resembles the bowel flora of an obese type 2 diabetic, even if the person is a slender non-diabetic. They also increase appetite and cause weight gain. There is growing suspicion that exposure to such compounds may contribute to causing diseases like Crohn’s disease in which intestinal inflammation is the key abnormality. The effects of these two emulsifying agents, even in very small quantities, despite being classified by the FDA as GRAS—Generally Regarded As Safe—are so awful that we avoid them 100%.
We therefore opt for whole natural foods least modified by manufacturers and containing little to no additives. It means we choose foods like eggs, avocados, meats, and vegetables. We choose organic foods whenever budget and availability permit to minimize exposure to glyphosate and other herbicides, avoid meats from animals raised with antibiotics to accelerate growth, avoid farmed fish that are likewise treated with antibiotics.
But there are times when we also, for the sake of convenience, holidays, entertaining, and taste, carefully choose additives that have proven to be benign. Natural sweeteners such as stevia, allulose, and monk fruit are on this list, for example.
What about the gums such as gellan gum, xanthan gum, or guar gum? Like synthetic emulsifiers, gums like this also help keep foods from separating. They keep mayonnaise from separating into oil and water components, keep the solids in coconut milk suspended in water, keep fat from rising to the top in dairy products. They therefore promote uniformity and mixing of varied components. But are they safe? How much of an emulsifying effect do they exert upon contact with the intestinal mucus lining? Let’s focus specifically on guar gum for this discussion.
Guar gum is a polysaccharide (chain of sugars, as are all fibers) composed of the sugars galactomannan and galactose. Because it is a polysaccharide, it has potential to act as a prebiotic fiber, i.e., a fiber metabolized by bowel flora. It is sourced from a legume that originates in India, also grown in Texas. While humans lack the enzymes to digest guar gum, bacteria are capable of metabolizing to fatty acids such as butyrate and propionate. The partially hydrolyzed form (i.e., broken into fragments by an enzyme) is also used, a form that is less viscous and does not form a gel, unlike the non-hydrolyzed form.
I could find no evidence of substantial emulsifying effects of the sort we try to avoid. Experimental evidence also fails to demonstrate effects unique to emulsifiers, such as increased food intake, weight gain, or metabolic distortions.
Because guar gum acts as a prebiotic fiber, it has been shown to:
- Increase intestinal butyrate levels—that nourish intestinal cells and mediate many beneficial metabolic effects in the host (i.e., you) such as reduced insulin resistance, reduced blood sugar and blood pressure
- Provoke beneficial changes (though modest) in bowel flora composition—Bifidobacteria and Ruminococcus populations are increased. Bowel habits in people prone to loose stools also improved.
- Improve bowel habits in people with irritable bowel syndrome
- Increase populations of Clostridium butyricum—Clostridia are a mixed bag of healthy and unhealthy species. C. butyricum is among the desirable, even present in the Pendulum Akkermansia probiotic. C. butyricum completely degrades guar gum in the colon.
- Increase efficacy of antibiotics (by 25% from 62.1% to 87.1%) in treating small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, SIBO
- Reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome—Though precisely why and how is not clear.
Due to its extreme ability to absorb water, adverse effects have been observed when large quantities of guar gum are consumed, with physical blocking of the esophagus, for instance, causing choking. The amounts that we might use are far smaller and are mixed into foods like yogurt, so such adverse effects are not a concern.
It therefore appears that guar gum, certainly the partially hydrolyzed form, does not exert adverse effects on the intestinal microbiome and, indeed, exerts beneficial probiotic effects.
I’ve given guar gum this special consideration because it would be a terrific advantage in making our fermented products without dairy but with coconut milk. Making, for instance, L. reuteri yogurt with coconut milk is a challenge, as it typically separates into oil solids and liquid, much of it inedible, not to mention not very tasty. Adding guar gum yields a uniform and much tastier mixture.
I shall be posting a recipe for coconut milk-based yogurt in coming days.