Gums: What Are Food Gums?

Gums: What Are Food Gums?

Gums are used as a thickening agent or stabilizer in many foods. They can provide a creamy mouthfeel, as well. They prevent sugar crystals from forming in candy, stabilize beer foam, form a gel in pudding, encapsulate flavor oils in powdered drink mixes, and keep oil and water mixed together in salad dressings. They are used to replace fat in low-fat ice cream, baked goods, and condiments.

Cellulose gel is a purified form of cellulose that is ground to tiny particles. It supplies a mouthfeel that is very similar to fat. The fact that gums are hydrocolloids and absorb water is why they can work as gels or thickeners. Gums are used instead of starches, because starches can mask flavor and often are more expensive.

Many gums are derived from natural sources, including bushes, trees, seaweed, and bacteria. Guar gum, fenugreek gum, and locust bean gum come from seeds. Gum arabic, karaya gum, and gum tragacanth are tree exudates or sap. Carrageenan, agar-agar, and alginates are derived from seaweed. Konjac comes from the elephant yam (a tuber). Some gums are not considered as natural, because they react with various chemicals. These include methylcellulose, hydroxypropal cellulose, carboxymethylcellulose, and propylene glycol alginate.

Gums differ in their viscosity, ability to emulsify, ability to control freeze-thaw stability, likelihood of breaking down in low pH mixtures or under high heat, etc. Gums often are combined to yield new functions. For example, alginate is a foam stabilizer and thickening agent used in beer, candy, cheese, ice cream, and yogurt. Carrageenan is a stabilizing and thickening agent found in chocolate milk, cottage cheese, ice cream, infant formula, and jelly.

What foods are gums most often used in?
Gums really are used in a wide range of foods, including:

  • Condiments
  • Shelf-stable gel desserts
  • Puddings
  • Baked goods
  • Icings
  • Meats
  • Meat and fish analogs
  • Batters
  • Sauces
  • Gravies
  • Frozen entrées
  • Ice cream
  • Beverages
  • Beverage mixes

What are the nutritional properties of food gums?
Gums are not absorbed by the body, and most are a good source of soluble and insoluble fiber. Some gums are used for medical conditions, especially constipation, cholesterol, and diabetes. For example guar gum is used as a laxative and as a treatment for diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Some people believe that guar gum may aid weight loss, because it expands in the intestine leading to a sense of fullness. Arabic gum is taken orally to reduce cholesterol levels.

Are food gums safe?
In general, food gums are not well tested, but they probably are safe. Tragacanth has caused occasional severe allergic reactions. Consuming large amounts of food gums can lead to flatulence and bloating.


References and recommended readings

Center for Science in the Public Interest. Chemical cuisine: learn about food additives.
Available at:
Accessed May 17, 2011.

Food Insight. Food ingredients and colors.
Available at:
Accessed May 17, 2011.

Food Insight. Questions and answers about fat replacers.
Available at:
Accessed May 17, 2011.

Gum Technology Corp. FAQs.
Available at:
Accessed May 17, 2011.

WebMD. Arabic gum.
Available at:
Accessed May 17, 2011.

WebMD. Guar gum.
Available at: Accessed May 17, 2011.


Review Date 7/11