What Exactly Is Gellan Gum & Is It OK To Eat?
Almond. Oat. Cashew. Coconut. These days, there are tons of plant-based milk options to choose from, and more people are chugging them than ever before. Dairy-alternative milks have steadily gained popularity over the past few years—a recent poll found that about half of Americans will choose dairy alternatives.
As people bring alt-milk into their homes, they're also bringing questions. Specifically, what's in it? Plant-based milks often have long lists of ingredients. Some, like water and almonds, are easily recognizable; others, like gellan gum...not so much.
What is gellan gum?
If you don't know what gellan gum is, you're not alone. Despite the obscure name, it's actually a simple product.
Gellan gum is a vegan thickening agent added to foods to create and maintain a desired consistency. "It's found in nature, growing on water lilies," explains Lauren McNeill, R.D., MPH. Food producers don't go pond-hopping to find it, though. They "make it artificially for our food through fermentation," McNeill explains.
What is gellan gum used for?
Gellan gum is added to a variety of foods as an emulsifier. It's in almond milk so that "when you pour your glass, you're not getting a bunch of water on top and then the solids at the bottom," says Kathy Levin, RDN. It's also in yogurt, ice cream, sorbets, and jams. And you may notice other "gums" making appearances on these ingredient lists too.
Levin explains that gellan isn't the only type of gum that's used to emulsify foods. "There are all sorts of different kinds of thickeners out there. There are other gums like xanthan gum and guar gum." Food manufacturers choose a gelling agent based on what they're thickening, Levin says.
Food producers also vary the quantity of their chosen gum, depending on how thick they want the food or drink to be, McNeill explains. In almond milk, small amounts of gellan gum "bind added nutrients to the almond-milk base so that there's less separation." But when manufacturers use more, for example, in jams, "it can help to form a gel-like consistency."
In addition to thickening food and drinks, gellan gum can also maintain these products' forms as temperatures change. "So if you purchase almond milk off the shelf in the grocery store in the refrigerated section and take it home" in a hot car, the gellan gum "can help to prevent any kind of harmful effects of the temperature changes," McNeill says.
Is gellan gum safe to eat?
Studies from around the world find gellan gum safe. Levin points out that a typical carton of almond milk has very little of this additive in it. Gellan gum is usually one of the last ingredients listed, which means that it's used in smaller amounts than the other, more prominently placed ones.
Although there's a broad consensus that gellan gum is safe to eat, it can cause side effects in some cases. "In some very small studies, it has been shown to be a fecal bulking agent," McNeill says. This could help people who experience constipation, but for others, it slows digestion. That said, McNeill emphasizes that gellan gum "is typically used in really, really small amounts so it's unlikely to cause any problems."
Want to drink plant-based milk without gellan gum?
Still not sure you want this ingredient in your diet? Don't worry, you don't have to give up on plant-based milk just yet. Some brands, like Elmhurst and Oatly don't use gellan gum in their nondairy milk products.
Otherwise, Levin coaches her clients who are uncomfortable with the premade variety's long lists of ingredients to make almond milk at home. "It's not super hard," she says. But if you do go the homemade route, she recommends taking supplements to replace the vitamin and nutrient fortification that store-bought plant-based milks have.
Gellan gum is an vegan thickening agent that's used to maintain consistency and texture of nondairy milk, yogurt, ice cream, sorbets, and jams. It's safe to eat and generally only present in small amounts. However, if you're concerned, you can opt to make your own alt-milk instead.
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Colette Coleman is a writer passionate about health, wellness and plant-based eating. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and studied yoga and meditation with Sri Dharma Mittra in New York.