Food Stabilizers, Emulsifiers, and Flow Agents — Are They Safe?

Mag­ne­sium stearate
Guar gum
Xan­than gum
Gum ara­bic

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 almost zero 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.




About Ronald Lavine, D.C.

Dr. Lavine has more than thirty years' experience helping patients alleviate pain and restore health using diverse, scientifically-based manual therapy and therapeutic exercise and alignment methods.

His website,, provides more information about his approach.

Please contact him at or at 212-400-9663.

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