The gluten in wheat is elastic and expands when baked, allowing breads, cakes, cookies and dough to maintain their shape without falling or crumbling. However, since the flours used in gluten-free baking do not contain gluten, something must be added as a binder to create these same elastic qualities and help goods hold their shape.
When I first began cooking gluten free more than ten years ago, there were two main binders people generally used to replace wheat gluten in gluten-free goods. Xanthan gum and guar gum. In the beginning I used only xanthan gum, then I switched to guar gum for a while and then back to xanthan. Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide used as a binder in many gluten-free products. In the production of xanthan gum, sucrose or glucose is fermented by a bacterium, Xanthomonas campestris. Xanthan gum can be derived from corn, soy, or wheat.
In the last year I have stopped using any gums in my cooking. I don't use xanthan gum or guar gum when I cook any of the recipes in my cookbook, Celeste's Best Gluten-Free, Allergen-Free Recipes. Our diet is a fairly natural one and I didn’t feel these gums were something I wanted to be eating. I also felt my daughter was having a reaction to them. Some common reactions include migraines, skin itchiness, nose and throat irritation and gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
Searching on the web I found many others were beginning to discover that these gums may be an issue for them, too. I began experimenting with different ingredients to replace these gums. I tried psyllium husk powder, which works quite well by the way. But for me personally, it caused a bit of stomach discomfort. I also tried fruit pectin. Did not have much luck with that or gelatin for that matter. They did not produce the results I was after. Nor did I have much luck with agar-agar, inulin or acacia root.
Then I tried konjac powder or glucomannan. This water soluble fiber is derived from the konjac gluco-mannan root plant. It's simply ground-up, dried konjac root. It is a dietary fiber that has been used in Asia for centuries. This fiber can be used as a gelling agent, thickener, emulsifier, stabilizer as well as a soluble fiber source.
Some of the believed benefits of konjac fiber include: regulation of lipid metabolism, reduced blood lipid and cholesterol; the reduction of blood glucose; reducing risk of constipation and cancer of lower digestive tract; and improvement of diet for diabetics.
Adding konjac glucomannan fiber to one’s diet slows the absorption of sugar and cholesterol from the digestive tract, helping to control sugar levels in diabetics and reducing cholesterol levels.
Konjac powder proved to be the most successful in gluten-free cooking and baking. In most of my recipes in Celeste's Best Gluten-Free, Allergen-Free Recipes I was able to substitute the same amount of konjac powder in place of the xanthan gum. A few recipes needed to be adjusted by adding slightly more konjac, usually an extra ¼ teaspoon per cup of flour.
Related Post: Yes, You Bake Gluten-Free Without Xanthan Gum