These are crystals of lysozyme, an enzyme which can break apart cell wall peptidoglycan of certain bacteria. It is part of our and other animals’ immune systems. Lysozyme is more effective against gram-positive bacteria, as gram-negative bacteria have additional cell membranes that make it harder for the lysozyme to reach the peptidoglycan.
Lysozyme is often used in the processing of xanthan gum. Xanthomonas campestris, a gram-negative bacteria, produce an exopolysaccharide which is a gooey, thick, and sticky slime. This slime may help the bacteria create a comfortable environment for itself and also act as camouflage from other organism’s immune systems.
The slime (aka xanthan gum) is used in cosmetics because it imparts viscosity, lubricity, and acts as a humectant water-binding film former. It also increases the yield stress of water, meaning things suspended in it don’t settle as fast. “Raw” xanthan gum can resemble snot and be cloudy.
In a series of processing steps, the Xanthomonas campestris’ cells are stripped of their membranes and broken apart – this can be done by heating in alkaline water then by treatment with lysozyme and protease. The xanthan gum becomes less gloopy and crystal clear.
Lysozyme can be sourced from a variety of things, but most commonly hen egg whites. It’s not often clear what the source of lysozyme is, so depending on the transparency of the supplier, it’s possible that products labelled ‘Vegan’ may have used animal lysozyme treated xanthan gum.
Plant-based lysozymes do exist, but their structures and functions often differ from animal lysozymes. Genetically modified organisms have been created to produce lysozymes more closely resembling animal lysozymes, but GMOs can be an issue for those who choose vegan products.
I first encountered this conundrum during a meeting with a supplier when they were promoting their vegan xanthan gum, which was slightly less clear than their regular grades. I’d always assumed xanthan gum was vegan, since it was made from bacteria. Sadly, the product line has been discontinued, but one of the largest chemical companies in the world recently launched a clear vegan xanthan gum that’s also GMO-free.
To see more images of lysozyme crystals, check out Dr. Kalju Kahn’s gallery created by students at UCSB.