I’ve always been a little nervous when I see these listed on a food label.
These ingredients are often added to foods to modify their texture – stabilize them, thicken them, make them smooth, or allow them to flow. They all sound natural enough, but is there danger lurking? Are they safe?
One of my colleagues, Chris Kresser, has recently published a series of articles covering these additives, and I’m indebted to him for helping deepen my understanding.
Four preliminary thoughts
Even plain water can cause serious distress if you try to swallow too many gallons at once. So no food ingredient can be evaluated without considering the amount that you consume. It isn’t the poison – it’s the dose. Fortunately, these stabilizers and other food additives are typically consumed in small quantities.
We all make relative health risk judgments every day, and few of us are entirely rational. Ride a bike without a helmet? Walk down the street next to a smoker puffing away? Airplane travel? All carry some degree of health risk.
While in theory it would be a great idea to limit our exposure to any health threat, no matter how miniscule, in the real world we’re always performing a juggling act, choosing to ignore certain risks while steering clear of others.
Personally, you’d have a hard time convincing me that it’s safe to eat something that causes cancer in rats. Fortunately, a lot of food additives are tested in animals first before they’re ever approved for humans.
But scientifically speaking, you’d have to know a lot more about how the digestive system and internal chemistry of rats differs from that of humans before you can draws any firm conclusions from animal studies.
Two children are eating lunch. One unwraps a peanut butter sandwich from waxed paper and cheerfully bites in. The other, if the peanut butter even brushed against his skin, might have to be rushed into the emergency room.
This type of intense food allergy is an extreme example, but individuals differ widely in how they respond to foods. You have a different digestive tract, different metabolic enzymes and a different immune system than your neighbor. So just because something is generally considered to be safe doesn’t mean that it agrees with your system.
The Bottom Line
There is very little evidence that carageenan, gum arabic, xanthan gum, magnesium stearate, or guar gum are likely to be harmful. A susceptible person may increase his or her chance of irritating the intestinal lining with some of these. If you have a sensitive system, pay attention to how you react to these products. Otherwise, enjoy them and don’t worry.