Gums added to food generally considered safe

This article was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on September 24, 2014.

Some ice cream sandwiches with gum additives will hold their shape for a long time when left in the sun.
Some ice cream sandwiches with gum additives will hold their shape for a long time when left in the sun. Photo: Jamie Grill / Getty Images

During the summer, a Cincinnati mother reported that her son’s Walmart-brand ice cream sandwich sat in the sun for hours and didn’t melt. A video about it became a YouTube sensation but also raised some health questions, prompting scores of news outlets and regular people to film their own melt tests with a variety of ice cream treats.

Some ice cream sandwiches used in those tests quickly turned to puddles, but others held their shapes in the sun for more than an hour. Now new Consumer Reports research reveals the science behind the “unmeltable“ ice cream and why more health studies might be needed on the ingredients.

A panel of Consumer Reports food scientists determined that food additives, called gums, slow the time it takes to melt ice creams. Companies add gums to ice cream to thicken it and give it a creamier texture without having to add more cream or fat. The additives, including locust bean gum, cellulose gum, guar gum, xanthan gum and carrageenan, are actually in a lot of processed foods, from pudding to salad dressing to deli meat, and even some organic soy and almond milks and infant formulas.

The Food and Drug Administration says gums are “generally recognized as safe,” meaning they have been used in foods for so long that there’s general consensus about their safety, and the agency does not have to approve them before they go to market. But gums aren’t completely without controversy. One, carrageenan, has been linked to intestinal problems in some animal studies.

“In general, there have not been extensive studies done on the safety of many gums,” Urvashi Rangan, executive director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center, said in a video statement. “Carrageenan has been one of the most studied, and there may be some gastrointestinal health concerns there, so if you suffer from those, you may want to check food labels for carrageenan and other gums.”