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.

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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)


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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)


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SOURCE: Bull. Hist. Chem.


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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.


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Hanging with the big guys.  Dr Allene R. Jeanes is recognized in the Galesburg Register-Mail, May 19th, 1953


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.




Winged Wunderkammer

A wunderkammer is a collection of objects much like a curiosity cabinet of old. Some of these collections as gathered over the years have been left to museums such as the Tate or MoMA. Consider this a tiny cabinet of curiosities of moments of movement and of rest.

Gotta wing it: LIFE is calling.

All photos are free images from morgueFile.

Vulpine Adventures Anew

My earlier post about the Gray Fox was eaten after publication by WordPress. If you saw a notification go by, now you know what happened.

I’ll start over again.

The word “vulpine” means like or having to do with foxes.

I’ve loved foxes ever since I saw one darting across our field in the dead of winter, a flourish of color against the drab background of the Irish countryside. I was mesmerized by it as I watched from my window, and hopeful it would run far and fast, for though it wasn’t hunting season, it would be soon.

Many years later, when my son was little, we bought a copy of Run With the Wind by Irish author Tom McCaughren and thus ensued a shared interest in foxes. On fall afternoons, I would cover the kitchen table with an enormous mound of sand-colored, homemade playdough and read McCaughren’s beautiful stories about foxes and their struggle to survive as my son made burrows and dens, planting fake deciduous trees into miniature forests as he organized fox families from his large collection of Schleich and Safari molded plastic fox figures.

Now he’s eighteen and I wonder, does he remember? How hard I had worked to instill in him a love of nature, a respect for the land, a reverence for books and words. I probably overdid it. I overdid many things back then, but not love.

I got up from the computer just now and went to look for the box of foxes. They are somewhere here, hidden among the cartons and tubs of toys awaiting a playroom for grandchildren, the planned work of the upcoming year in which I’ll face everything I was too busy to look at as parenting ran its breakneck course from the start to maturation of one, once small boy. He’s too stressed today with coming AP exams, finals, and graduation for me to ask do you remember? It’s a bad day for sentimentality, even as the box it’s contained in has burst its seams from too many years stored under stacked weight.

The post I shared earlier was about the Gray Fox. Unlike the Red Fox, vulpes vulpes, the Gray Fox is descended from a different line, one in which just one other member exists: the diminutive Channel Island Fox. Red and Gray foxes belong to different genuses altogether.

Red Fox, vulpes vulpes

Though all foxes are canids, the Gray Fox is native to both North and South America and has the proper name (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). Once the dominant fox in America, it has been displaced by the more adaptable Red Fox and it is now concentrated mainly in the western states. Its closest relatives are the east Asian raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) and the African bat-eared fox (Otocyon megalotis).

Gray Fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus

The word cinereoargenteus means ‘ashen silver’, but the muzzles, necks, and tails are tipped with darker fur in the Gray Fox. Its eyes are rounder and lack the slit-like appearance of the Red Fox, and its legs are shorter and lack the distinctive “black stockings” of red foxes. Its paws are smaller, too, yet stronger and uniquely capable: Gray Foxes are the only canids which can climb vertically and dens have be found thirty feet above the ground in the hollowed out sections of trees. This is also explains the scat I found on my chicken coop roof. Gray foxes leap from branch to branch and descend backwards from trees like cats. In many respects, canid though they may be, they seem feline and even their young are called kits.

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Gray Fox, Palo Alto Baylands. Source: Bill Leikam, Wikipedia


I took the following pictures during the mating season of 2016 using my Reconyx Hyperfine HC600 .

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This fox lives under our deck and likes to eat layer crumble


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Here, it seems to be calling out


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Even though the infrared camera is supposed to be silent, many pictures suggest that foxes can hear it just fine.


Cat food is always the first choice by discerning foxes it seems.


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Prim feet, eager mouth


An egg is a mouthful yet this fox seems to know how to grab one without breaking it.


And a duck egg is an even bigger challenge!


If you’re interested in beautifully written stories set in Ireland, I recommend you check out Tom McCaughren’s work. The first three books in this series are ranked among the top 100 books in Ireland and are published by Penguin Books. They are available through Amazon here.  Should you decide to read them, pleasure consider leaving the author a review.

“D” is for Depression and Social Media

Welcome to my 2016 A to Z series on how to establish a meaningful minimum for social media as part of a balanced life. Over the next 26 days, I’ll take a quick look at  some of the pluses and minuses of social media and how to adapt it to your own needs and plans.

IMG_6885.JPGSocial media and depression have a complex relationship.

On the plus side, social media can relieve isolation and provide opportunities for mutual support.

On the other hand, depression has been linked to social media, and the number of hours a person spends on social media is strongly correlated with depression, though it remains unclear if people with depression seek more social media time or if too much social media makes people depressed.

As someone successfully managing depression without medication or therapy (don’t get me wrong, I’ve done those things before and would again as needed), I’m always on the lookout for signs I’ve strayed into a habit which undermines my overall attempts to main good mental health. As I’ve learned more about the way depression and social media interact, I find myself taking steps to move away from social media and for longer periods of time. Just like alcohol, isolation, and negative self-talk, social media is on my watch-list of things which can trip me up.

Here are two key things to consider if you are depressed or have a history of depression and use social media on a regular basis:

  1. Should you decide to reduce your use of social media, take it slowly. Once in place as a means of social support, it can be harmful to quit social media cold turkey. Even moderate reductions (such as one-day social media fasts) are associated with withdrawal symptoms.
  2. Be careful where you engage, opting for places where you know people or where the group norms are polite and supportive. Leave groups and interactions which contribute to a sense of isolation or worthlessness or negativity.

For more information on how depression and social media are linked, check out this short article.

To visit other blogs in the A to Z Challenge, go here:


“C” is for Commit to Community

Welcome to my 2016 A to Z series on how to establish a meaningful minimum for social media as part of a balanced life. Over the next 26 days, I’ll take a quick look at  some of the pluses and minuses of social media and how to adapt it to your own needs and plans.

Over the course of the past few years, I’ve been a member–active or otherwise–of close to one hundred Facebook groups.

About ten minutes ago, I deleted myself from all but twenty of these groups as part of a massive first pruning because, after a weekend of reading and reflection, one thing was clear to me:

I am a person who commits.

…who was not committing

…who was in fact drifting and dissipating from overcommitment, the happiness killer.

“You mean like in Fellowship of the Ring? The butter on the bread?” my friend Roslynn asked in response to my complaints.

“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

It was more like I’d scraped the butter dish and smeared a snail’s trace over my toast.

No, today I quit as commitment. It was a commitment to spend “more time with my remaining parts” i.e. the secret sisterhoods of writers which are much better haunts and light the way and raise the spirits with wonder, awe, and laughter.


To visit other blogs in the A to Z Challenge, click here: