Read food labels and you may start to notice xanthan gum in everything from ice cream and yogurt to salad dressings and baked goods. If you're a gluten-free baker, you may have have a package of xanthan gum in your kitchen.

But what is it exactly — and should everyone be eating it? Here’s the lowdown on xanthan gum.

Related: 11 Ways to Keep a Gluten-Free Kitchen

What it is. Xanthan gum was developed in the 1960s and deemed safe to add to food in 1968. “Basically it’s made by feeding corn sugar to bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris,” explains Alissa Rumsey, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (It can also be made with wheat or soy.) The by-product of this process is dried and then ground into a white powder. “The result, xantham gum, is an indigestible carbohydrate,” Rumsey explains.

What it does. Xanthan gum is like a Swiss army knife of food additives. It can act as a thickener or stabilizer. It also can help to blend ingredients more efficiently in beverages, dough, candy, cottage cheese and pudding. It smoothes out textures in sauces and prevents ice crystals from forming in frozen desserts, says Rumsey. In some desserts and pastries, xantham gum is used to replace fat.

It's a key ingredient in many gluten-free baked goods. “Xanthan gum is what gives most gluten-free breads and baked goods a texture similar to wheat-based breads,” says Rumsey.

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Who should avoid it. Companies that make xanthan gum from wheat claim it’s gluten-free because the bacteria used to make it digests the wheat. However, says Rumsey, whether you can safety eat it depends on how severe your sensitivity is. If you’re seriously allergic to wheat or have celiac disease, it’s best to avoid gluten-free products that contain xantham gum.

The same is true for folks who are allergic to corn. Occasionally xanthan gum contains soy or dairy products, so someone with allergies to either of these ingredients also should steer clear of xantham gum.

If you find that eating products made with xanthan causes bloating, it’s because “xanthan gum contains fiber, approximately seven grams per tablespoon,” notes Rumsey. It’s not health issue, but you may want to avoid xanthan gum if you don’t digest it well.

Can you eat too much of it? “There aren't many human studies on xanthan gum. So while it's basically harmless — except for people with allergies or digestive issues — it's hard to know if there is a safe upper limit,” says Rumsey. But since most products contain just a small amount, it's unlikely you'll have an issue or eat too much to cause harm.

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Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a New York City-based writer and editor who specializes in parenting, health and child development. She’s also the mom of two teen girls.