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There’s never been a better time to use a miracle food additive made from bacteria poop

By Adam Pasick
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Xanthan gum really doesn’t sound that appetizing: The food additive is excreted by a strain of bacteria, Xanthomonas campestris, that is also responsible for the black slime that forms on broccoli and cauliflower when you leave them in the fridge too long. After X. campestris chows down on high-fructose corn syrup, it basically poops out xanthan gum.

But in the hands of a cutting-edge chef, the stabilizing and thickening agent is responsible for gastronomic miracles like Ferran Adriá’s ham consommé. It is also widely used as a substitute for eggs in store-bought salad dressings and other foods, and is renowned for its “fatty feel.”  Its oleaginous properties mean it even finds uses in cosmetics and even oil drilling.

What’s more, given that recipes only call for tiny quantities of the stuff, xanthan gum is pretty cheap. It sells in supermarkets and health food stores for a little more than $1 an ounce. In fact, the wholesale price has never been lower.

Which is surprising, because almost exactly a year ago, the US imposed stiff tariffs on xanthan gum imports from China. The International Trade Commission ruled that “imports of xanthan gum from China threaten a US industry with material injury” because suppliers like Neimenggu Fufeng Biotechnologies were dumping xanthan gum on the US market at below-cost prices. The commission implemented mandatory duties of more than 100%.

So what happened? Chinese suppliers, which control about two-thirds of the global market, initially threatened to quit the US market. But instead they’ve stuck around, and expanded capacity has led to a record low price for Chinese xanthan gum. Prices are even lower in Europe, where there isn’t an anti-dumping duty, according to Dennis Seisun, publisher of the Quarterly Review of Food Hydrocolloids.

So what better time to settle in with a fancy recipe—perhaps Wylie Dufresne’s “Smoked Eel, Peanuts, Snow Peas and Whipped Caramel”—and put a humble bacteria excretion to work in the service of haute cuisine? Or if smoked eel isn’t your thing, here’s “Spherified Green Chickpeas with Ibérico Ham”:

(thanks to chef Jess Barnes of the excellent Opposite Mess Hall for the story idea.)

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