We have a lot of options today to eat healthier products and avoid processed food like junk-food, sweets(sugar) and fruit beverages. But not always going for “natural” is a good thing for your health. Carrageenan, a heavily discussed additive in the world of alternative health, is an indigestible polysaccharide that is extracted from red algae, and is most commonly used in food as a thickener or stabilizer.
This natural ingredient containing seaweeds have been used for centuries in food preparations esspecially for its gelling properties. But the isolated one found in modern processed foods raise a lot of concerns in the health community.
The natural ingredient in your dairy alternative
Many food manufacturers—including organic foods—are adding carrageenan to foods like yogurt, chocolate, soymilk and almond milk, and even ice cream to give the foods a thicker consistency and to make low-fat versions taste fuller. Derived from red seaweed, it’s often added to beverages to keep their ingredients from separating; you’ll find it in many nutritional shakes, milk products, and even beer.
The ingredient even crops up in frozen dinners, soups, and commercial broth products.
Note: The law does not require ingredients to be listed on alcoholic beverages and carrageenan is commonly used to clarify beer.
What is really strange is that this natural C has no nutritional value. More, it can be easily eliminated from beverages simply by printing “shake well” as long as all it does is making sure the liquids remain mixed. There is an organic group called Cornucopia Institute that has been critical on the use of carrageenan in organic products and they launched a petition urging the FDA to ban this ingredient from the food supply.
Carrageenan is an indigestible polysaccharide that is extracted from red algae and is most commonly used in food as a thickener or stabilizer. Carrageenan-containing seaweeds have been used for centuries in food preparations for their gelling properties, but the refined, isolated variation found in modern processed foods has raised concerns in the health-conscious online community.
Carrageenan is especially common in non-dairy milks such as almond milk and coconut milk, which means that some people who transition to a Paleo diet might actually be increasing their exposure if they use these products.
In fact, one of the leading researchers in the field, Dr. Joanne Tobacman, has concluded that “carrageenan exposure clearly causes inflammation; the amount of carrageenan in food products is sufficient to cause inflammation; and degraded carrageenan and food-grade carrageenan are both harmful.”
In my opinion, the majority of frozen pizzas, ice creams, and prepared chicken aren’t healthy choices and should be avoided anyway, whether they contain carrageenan or not. Although derived from a natural source, carrageenan appears to be particularly destructive to the digestive system, triggering an immune response similar to that your body has when invaded by pathogens like Salmonella. The result: it predictably causes inflammation, which can lead to ulcerations and bleeding.
Experimental evidence on the effects of carrageenan in humans is extremely limited, for obvious ethical reasons. However, a few in vitro experiments have been conducted on isolated human intestinal cells. One study found that in intestinal epithelial tissue, carrageenan exposure increased the expression of two pro-inflammatory transcription factors. This reaction appears to be protective of the intestinal tight junctions, because suppression of either of the inflammatory factors resulted in increased permeability of the isolated epithelial tissue.
Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether they used food-grade carrageenan rather than poligeenan in this experiment.
How to cut carrageenan from your diet
Watch the label. This must legally appear on a food label, so check labels of even organic foods to see if it’s an ingredient. While organic foods ban the use of GMOs, chemical pesticides, and toxic synthetic additives, the program does allow carrageenan.
Make a list. The Cornucopia Institute created a Buying Guide to help you shop carrageenan-free products.
Stay clear. Avoid as much as you can products like almond milk. Carrageenan is especially common in non-dairy milks such as almond milk and coconut milk, which means that some people who transition to a Paleo diet might actually be increasing their exposure if they use these kind of products.Almond milk...is carrageenan afecting your health? Click To Tweet
There are a few distinct types of carrageenan that differ in their chemical properties, but the most important distinction is between degraded carrageenan and undegraded carrageenan. From a chemical standpoint, the difference between these two types is in their molecular weight. From a practical standpoint, undegraded carrageenan is approved for use in food products, while degraded carrageenan is not.
However, carrageenan has produced intestinal damage in some animal studies. Observed effects in rats include epithelial cell loss, increased intestinal permeability, and diarrhea.
There are a few other important considerations when determining how applicable these results are to humans. Many of these experiments administered the substance through the animals’ drinking water as opposed to their food, which tends to increase the severity of the resulting symptoms. C interacts with protein molecules so consuming it as part of a solid food is much less harmful than consuming it in water.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a known carcinogen, and although some studies implicate carrageenan in ulceration and inflammation, some show no adverse effects. Anyway, a caution is warranted.
I have talked about food additives before and I must add that carrageenan is a bit more concerning that other additives like soy lecithin or magnesium stearate. Remember that in cases involving modern ingredients, the burden of proof should be on manufacturers to prove that they are safe for us, rather than on consumers to prove that they are harmful.
Personally, I adhere to the “precautionary principle” for anything I eat; in other words, in the absence of proven safety for this kind of substances, I choose to avoid as much as I can foods that have questionable adverse effects. Carrageenan fits this description, as there’s still some doubt about its safety and no evidence has convinced me that there isn’t a potential for harm if consumed regularly.
If you have some other opinion or links to studies about carrageenan effects, please feel free to leave them in the comments below.