In numerous foods including canned soup, ice cream and salad dressing is an odd-sounding ingredient called xanthan gum. Discovered in the 1950s by National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Allene Jeanes, this revolutionary product has become an essential ingredient for thickening and adding texture to not only edible products but automotive and cosmetic ones as well.
Jeanes’ accomplishments don’t end there, as she is also credited with discovering how to reliably produce dextran, a polysaccharide that is used to save the lives of those suffering from severe blood loss.
Read below to learn more about the impact of Jeanes’ innovations.
An Impressive Education
Born in Waco, Texas, on July 19, 1906, Jeanes benefited from an impressive collegiate education that included a bachelor’s degree from Baylor University and a master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Her formal studies culminated in a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1938, a time where very few women were involved in the field.
Not long after completing her doctoral degree, Jeanes began working at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. It was here that she served as a Corn Industries Research Foundation fellow until 1940, when she took a position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northern Regional Research Lab (NRRL) in Peoria, Illinois.
Root Beer and Dextran
At the time, one of the NRRL’s main concerns was discovering new uses for corn, wheat and other agricultural waste byproducts. Jeanes began focusing her research on producing polysaccharides — massive molecules composed of thousands of sugar molecules — and became particularly interested in dextran, a substance that had promising health applications but was difficult to find in nature.
Fortune struck when a soft drink company sent a batch of root beer to her lab. The root beer had been contaminated with bacteria that was producing the elusive dextran. By isolating these bacteria, Jeanes was able to create dextran in her lab. This was important, as researchers at the time believed dextran could be used to help maintain blood pressure and restore electrolytes in patients with severe blood loss.
In 1950, the United States entered the Korean War, and thanks in part to Jeanes’ research, dextran became a preferred alternative to blood plasma and became the primary fluid resuscitation agent used by the military to treat shock. Today, the substance is used on both the battlefield and in emergency rooms, and it continues to help save lives around the world.
Following her success with dextran production, Jeanes began searching for an alternative to plant gum, a natural thickening and binding agent. Her team’s hard work led to the discovery of Xanthomonas campestris, bacteria that can convert large amounts of glucose into xanthan gum. The properties of xanthan gum make it extremely useful in food production. For example, it’s used to prevent ice crystals from forming in ice cream, and it stops oil and vinegar from separating in salad dressings.
According to an article published by the Lemelson Foundation, xanthan gum has become “the most mass-produced polysaccharide in existence.”
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