Checking Food Labels, Part 1 – Coconut Milk

I’m always open to learning new things about food and nutrition. Just wish my digestive system wasn’t making me learn the hard way! Anyway, this week I got in trouble the morning after eating a (really delicious, if I do say so myself) home-made vegetable curry.

This was a surprise, it being completely home-made – that is, I even formulated the spice mix myself, grinding up coriander seeds, cumin, fenugreek, black pepper, cinnamon and mixing with some turmeric powder and fresh ginger. Mm-mm. So I was puzzled what the issue was.

I’m wondering if it might have been the coconut milk. I used this one, having a lot of faith in the “macro” brand and thinking that “Certified Organic” would be OK:

The ingredients listed are: Organic coconut extract (74%), Water, Thickener (organic guar gum).

So… what exactly is guar gum?

According to Wikipedia, it’s “a galactomannan polysaccharide extracted from guar beans which has thickening and stabilising properties”. In plain(er) English, a polysaccharide is just a carbohydrate in the form of a long chain, which makes it slow to be digested. Galactomannan refers, I believe, to the types of molecules forming the chain. Apparently, guar gum is essentially undigestible by our own enzymes, though it may be partly broken down by our gut microbiota.

Honestly, I wouldn’t expect guar gum would be a problem for most people. Apparently, it might actually have health benefits because it acts like soluble fibre, adding bulk to the stool, and can lower cholesterol. The only issue associated with it was a past link with the pesticide PCP used in India, where it’s grown – but that wouldn’t be an issue if it were certified organic. On the whole, guar gum seems innocuous enough.

Remembering the bad reaction I had to gluten-free bread, though, I looked up the common additives in a popular brand. It lists thickeners (464,412). 464 is a chemical called hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, and 412 is… can you guess?… guar gum. I’m spotting a pattern, here.

Two thoughts pop up:

  1. Guar gum by its nature is undigestible, so it doesn’t feed us so much as it feeds our gut microbiome. It’s a prebiotic. That’s great news for our colon, where most of our helpful bacteria reside, but not good news if we have bacterial overgrowth in our small intestine, a condition called SIBO. Bacteria are not supposed to be hanging out in this part of our gut and are going to compete with us for nutrients and muck up our digestive processes. We don’t want to be feeding them. Conceivably, if I were suffering from SIBO, I might have problems with guar gum (and probably thickeners in general, and prebiotics).
  2. So what am I going to put in my curry?

I found another coconut milk in my store cupboard, this one:

This is another brand I trust, they produce decent Chinese food for the Australian market. Or so I always thought. But the ingredients are listed as: Water, Coconut extract (32%), Emulsifier (435), Thickener and Stabiliser (412,466). Yikes!

So even apart from containing less than half the amount of coconut extract (or double the amount of water, if you prefer), this one has three different chemical additives. 412 we know is guar gum, 466 is carboxymethyl cellulose (which sounds suspiciously like something cooked up in a lab), and the emulsifier 435 is something called polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan monostearate (which sounds… well, scary). I’m not sure I dare open this tin!

From now on, I’m going with the more expensive brand:

Ingredients listed as: Coconut kernel extract (89%), Water.

No preservatives, no additives, gluten free and BPA-free lining to the tin. And if you were wondering about the downsides of not having emulsifiers and thickeners, there are some notes explaining that: it may solidify below 14 degrees C (without affecting quality); it’s natural colour is light grey; and the fats can separate when boiled (so it should be added in the final 5 minutes of cooking a curry).

So now we know.

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