Xanthan gum is a thickener and emulsifier used in many pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial applications, and processed human and pet foods. Although its use is approved by the FDA, Xanthan gum was identified in 2011 as the cause of a deadly form of colitis responsible for several infant illnesses and deaths. As reported by the New York Times, the President of the company that makes the product in question (SimplyThick) claimed, “There was no need to conduct studies (for use of the product in infant formula), as the use of thickeners overall was already well established. In addition, the safety of xanthan gum was already well established.” (1)
That’s what they tell us about its use in cat foods too.
Marketed as an “all natural” ingredient in gluten-free recipes (2) xanthan gum is actually “the first of a new generation of polysaccharides [fibers] produced by biotechnology. The polymer was discovered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).” The laboratory-produced gum “appeared to have valuable properties that would allow it to compete with natural gums.” (3) The commercial production of Xanthan gum began in the U.S. in 1969. It is produced by the fermentation of glucose, sucrose, or lactose (derived from corn, soy, wheat or whey) with the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris. X. campestris is the same bacteria responsible for causing black rot to form on broccoli, cauliflower, and other leafy vegetables. The bacteria forms a slimy substance that acts as a stabilizer and thickener, an emulsifier, and a surface-active agent. (3) After a fermentation period of several days, it is heat treated to inactivate the organism: the gum is isolated from the bulk medium by precipitation with either isopropyl alcohol or ethanol (highly toxic carcinogens according to the American Cancer Society (5)). It is then dried, milled, sieved and packaged.
In other words, xanthan gum is a laboratory creation. It is a product:
– fermented on potential allergens
– when fermented on corn or soy (as it often is), GMO concerns exist
– cannot be manufactured without the use of toxic carcinogens
Xanthan gum is a “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) food additive in the US, Canada, Europe, and many other countries. Yet it is known to be potentially as irritating as gluten for some with Celiac disease, causing gas, bloat and diarrhea (4); and for causing flare-ups for those with Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis (inflammatory bowel disease). In fact, “the rapid increase in the incidence and prevalence of IBD in recent decades strongly suggests an environmental trigger for IBD, one of which may be dietary patterns. There are several pathways where diet may influence intestinal inflammation, such as direct dietary antigens, altering the gut microbiome, and affecting gastrointestinal permeability. (6) A review article, “Evidence-based dietary advice for patients with inflammatory bowel disease” indicates that emulsifiers in processed foods have been indicated in Crohn’s disease. (7)
At this point, it almost doesn’t seem surprising that something went wrong with this food additive “generally recognized as safe” in the sensitive intestines of premature infants. However, with the rare but tragic loss of life, we are left wondering – what happened? According to the New York Times article, the FDA investigators reporting on the deaths theorized that the infants’ intestinal membranes could have been damaged by bacteria breaking down the xanthan gum into “too many toxic byproducts,” as the intestines of premature infants are “far more likely” to have bacterial overgrowth than adults.
Whether or not xanthan gum is contributing to the development of IBD in cats, one thing is clear: with the established link between bacterial overgrowth and IBD (including Feline IBD (8)), cats with inflammatory bowel disease should not be eating xanthan gum.
Frankly, with digestive issues ranking as one of the top two reasons for a vet visit seven out of the last nine years, according to VPI Insurance, it’s probably a good bet no cat should be eating this.
1. Saint Louis, C. Warning Too Late for Some Babies, The New York Times, Healthy Consumer (online), February 24, 2013.
4. Cohan, W. Could Xanthan Gum Sensitivity be Complicating your Celiac Disease Recovery?, Celiac.com online, Dec 3, 2008.
5. American Cancer Society Known and Probably Human Carcinogens
6. Hou et al. 2013. Diet and Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Review of Patient-Targeted Recommendations, Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2013 Oct 6. pii: S1542-3565(13)01512-7.
7. Richman E. and Rhodes JM 2013. Review article: evidence-based dietary advice for patients with inflammatory bowel disease, Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2013 Nov;38(10):1156-71.
8. Janeczko et al. 2008. The relationship of mucosal bacteria to duodenal histopathology, cytokine mRNA, and clinical disease activity in cats with inflammatory bowel disease, Vet Microbiol 128 (2008) 178-193.
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