Xanthan Gum: Our Chemical Chum

Xanthan Gum is a common additive found in everything from eye drops to concrete.

As a thickener, it’s used in chewing gum, yogurt, and soup. As an emulsifier, it prevents the formation of crystals in ice cream. In salad dressings, it blends oil and water, suspends spices and herbs, and provides tantalizing coverage and flavor for greens. It binds water to fruit fillings, leaving pastry crust crispy and firm. A mainstay of gluten-free cooking, it lends stickiness to wheat-free doughs. Whether as stabilizing, suspending, or viscosity agent, this miracle chemical has vastly impacted our lives since it first received FDA approval in 1969.

A polysaccharide synthesized by the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris, it’s responsible for the black rot found on broccoli, cauliflower, and leafy greens grown in the garden. Cheap to manufacture and extraordinarily versatile, this pale, odorless, free-flowing powder is soluble in warm or cold water and is stable in the presence of enzymes, salts, acids and bases. First synthesized in quantity during the 1960s, it’s used for a host of consumer, industrial, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical preparations.

How it came to occupy its place in the panoply of culinary additives is a story of history, chemistry, and the struggle for a place at the table—both literal and figurative.

Xanthan gum is one of two well-known breakthroughs from a less well-known female chemist called Allene Rosalind Jeanes (b. July 19th, 1906, d. December 1, 1995) who lived and worked quietly in service of humankind.  A grande dame of science, her life lacked the heady scandals and wider notoriety of Marie Curie, whom I wrote about this time last year.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 11.34.47 AM
A recent graduate                                                  (SOURCE: The Waco Times-Tribune, 28 Jun, 1928)

A summa cum laude graduate of Baylor University (1928), she received her MA in Organic Chemistry at UC Berkeley (1929). For five years, she taught science at Athens College before enrolling at the University of Illinois where she later received her Ph.D. (1938).

It took time for this talented chemist to find work in her field due in part to Depression-era thinking, when such jobs were more often reserved for men. Eventually, she found work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) before joining the Northern Regional Research Lab (NRRL), a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where she remained for the rest of her working life. When she joined NRRL in 1941 at its Peoria, Illinois, location, the lab was already famous for its groundbreaking work in deep-tank fermentation and large-scale production of life-saving Penicillin.

At NRRL, Jeanes focused on polysaccharides, complex carbohydrates made up of long chains of polymers (large molecules made up of smaller molecules of repeated types). A simple example of a polysaccharide is starch.

While at the Department of Agriculture’s labs, a chance encounter with a sample of root beer led to scientific breakthrough. Faced with an unexpected viscous sludge and a soda manufacturer’s search for an explanation, she discovered the root beer was contaminated with a bacteria useful in producing Dextran, a polysaccharide commonly found in wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes. Dr. Jeanes and her team isolated the microbe and were considering its uses when researchers in England and Sweden proposed using Dextran as a plasma extender to stabilize  trauma patients en route to blood transfusion. Dextran was widely used in the Korean War before its introduction for civilian use. (Source: Chemical Heritage Foundation)

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 11.40.19 AM
Amidst more traditional views of womenan acknowledgment of the pioneering work of    Dr. Allene Jeanes for her receipt of the Distinguished Service Award                                       (SOURCE ARTICLE: Atchison Daily Globe, May 19th, 1953)

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 3.05.04 PM
SOURCE: Bull. Hist. Chem.

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 11.44.45 AM.png
Achievements of a world class scientist are juxtaposed against an article on pimples. (SOURCE ARTICLE: The Waco-Times Tribune, 30 Oct 1955)

Similarly, Xanthan gum is another polysaccharide derived from bacteria. Inexpensive to make, effective in quantities as small as 0.1% to 1% of a solution, it can be used in conjunction with Guar gum and/or Locust Bean gum to cumulative effect.  In contrast to the use of lab chemicals, pressure, and high temperature, Dr. Jeanes used fermentation to produce the Xanthan Gum in large quantities. (Source: Chemical Heritage Foundation) To understand better how Xanthan gum is produced, click here for a useful infographic.

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 8.05.22 PM.png
Hanging with the big guys.  Dr Allene R. Jeanes is recognized in the Galesburg Register-Mail, May 19th, 1953

 

609px-jfkwhp-ar7069-b
Recipients of the 1962 Federal Women’s Award. Dr. Allene R. Jeanes on the far left (SOURCE: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

 

During the course of a lifetime of service, Dr. Jeanes received 10 patents and wrote in at least 60 publications. She was recognized in her lifetime for her exemplary work, and received the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Distinguished Service Medal (1953), the Garvan Medal (1956) (an Award for American female scientists), and the Federal Women’s Service Award (1962).

She retired in 1976 but continued to work and collaborate for another decade, despite physical frailties, and died in 1995 at the age of 89. She was the first woman inducted into the ARS (Agricultural Research Service) Hall of Fame in 1999.

 

 

 

12 thoughts on “Xanthan Gum: Our Chemical Chum

  1. I was using Xanthan Gunnar some point in my protein shakes. I was afraid your research was going to cast a bad light on yet another additive I should’ve avoiding. Now I’m thinking I should add it back into my repertoire! Great article.

    1. Thank you. I embarked on tne research curious about this topic and was thrilled to learn its fascinating backstory. I will be continuing my use of Xanthan gum, thinking of Dr. Jeanes and her remarkable work. I appreciate your comment.

    1. Well, I won’t hesitate to continue to use it. The FDA classified it as safe for use and we have almost fifty years of data showing it is harmless for most of humanity. Thanks for commenting.

  2. I appreciate how you highlight intelligent women I may not have heard about otherwise. As for xanthum gum, I don’t actively seek to use it, but it’s a relief to know I don’t necessarily have to avoid it either. Great article!

  3. I love having information like this in the back of my mind. As a habitual label reader, I’ve often wondered about this ingredient that I’ve found in my ice cream and my salad dressing. Thanks for educating us, both on the science and the scientist. 🙂 My mom and I both really enjoyed it.

  4. Okay, loving the science geek stuff! Love learning about such incredible women of science – and to think how many times I was told I’d never be admired for my mind. HA! Seriously, though, I very much like how you make science accessible and interesting and relevant, without diluting either the science or the importance of the topic. I enjoy learning science from you – thank you!

  5. So interesting and as Carryl says, easy to read and understand. And so good to (re) unearth these great women. I see a series?
    Also my personal lighbulb moment – so this is the ‘xantana’ mentioned on a Catalan TV cook show. Don’t think I’d ever seen it before in a recipe in English. Thanks for researching and writing.

  6. What a fascinating backstory, Tonia. I so enjoy learning these details obscured by time and more sensational news. I am impressed by your research and tying this all into the letter “X.”

    Observation about the photo with President Kennedy. Were all of these women statuesque or was JFK not that tall?

  7. Very interesting read on a Sunday morning. I enjoyed how you educated not only on the science and history, but connected the readers to it’s relevance. I’ll be checking in often to learn more!

  8. These clips and photos are AMAZING! I love stuff like this! What a fascinating woman I’ve never heard about before now! The irony, of course, is that what she isolated is now something we all ingest, like, every single day! Honestly, with some further development, I could see this piece in a place like the New Yorker.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s