Ingredient Alert: Is Carrageenan Bad?
Check out your pantry before you read this. Read the ingredient labels of the foods you purchase to see how many include Carrageenan as an ingredient. I bet you’ll be surprised as to how prevalent this ingredient is, even in organic foods. That must mean it’s healthy, right? Or at least not unhealthy. Hmmm, let’s look further into that.
What is Carrageenan?
According to Wikipedia:
Carrageenans or carrageenins are a family of linear sulphated polysaccharides that are extracted from red edible seaweeds. They are widely used in the food industry, for their gelling, thickening, and stabilizing properties.
The carrageenan that we consume as an ingredient in our food is processed with alkali to make it “food grade”. When carrageenan is processed with acid, however, it becomes an extremely potent inflammatory to the digestive system. So potent, in fact, that researchers use this degraded version specifically to induce inflammation and disease in lab animals.
Non-degraded, or food-grade, carrageenan is used to mimic that thickened, fatty texture in low-fat or non-fat processed foods. It also prevents separation in beverages like chocolate milk or almond milk. It has no nutritional value and cannot be digested by the human body.
But carrageenan is natural (except, of course, for the acid or alkali processing), and therefore it must be good, right? Well, unfortunately that’s not exactly true. You see, carrageenan has been found to wreak havoc on the digestive system, with symptoms ranging from a mere “bloated” feeling to destruction indicative of inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s Disease.
Why Does Carrageenan Cause Digestive Distress?
It appears as though even food-grade carrageenan triggers an inflammatory immune response in the digestive system that is actually very similar to that caused by the salmonella pathogen. Apparently carrageenan has a unique chemical structure with chemical bonds not present in other forms of seaweed. Some suggest it’s the acidic environment present in the stomach which serves to degrade the carrageenan, turning it into the highly toxic form that is widely known to cause an inflammatory response.
When I first wrote about carrageenan on this site 10 years ago, I reported that some animal studies had linked degraded forms of it (the type not used in food) to ulcerations and cancers of the gastrointestinal tract. But around that time, a prominent researcher in the field, Joanne K. Tobacman, M.D., now associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, conducted studies linking undegraded carrageenan – the type that is widely used in foods – with malignancies and other stomach problems. (Degraded and undegraded carrageenan differ by molecular weight with undegraded carrageenan having the higher weight.)
Over the years Dr. Tobacman has published 18 peer-reviewed studies that address the biological effects of carrageenan and is convinced that it is harmful to human health. In April 2012, she addressed the National Organic Standards Board on this issue and urged reconsideration of the use of carrageenan in organic foods.
In her presentation, Dr. Tobacman said that her research has shown that exposure to carrageenan causes inflammation and that when we consume processed foods containing it, we ingest enough to cause inflammation in our bodies. She explained that all forms of carrageenan are capable of causing inflammation. This is bad news. We know that chronic inflammation is a root cause of many serious diseases including heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and cancer.
Dr. Tobacman also told the board that in the past, drug investigators actually used carrageenan to cause inflammation in tissues in order to test the anti-inflammatory properties of new drugs. And she reported further that when laboratory mice are exposed to low concentrations of carrageenan for 18 days, they develop “profound” glucose intolerance and impaired insulin action, both of which can lead to diabetes.
She maintains that both types of carrageenan are harmful and notes that “degraded carrageenan inevitably arises from higher molecular weight (food grade) carrageenan.” Research suggests that acid digestion, heating, bacterial action and mechanical processing can all accelerate degradation of food-grade carrageenan.
All told, I recommend avoiding regular consumption of foods containing carrageenan. This is especially important advice for persons with inflammatory bowel disease
So, as you can see above, the safety of carrageenan has been questioned for quite some time, and quite a few animal studies have implicated it in digestive disease. If you choose to look into the data further, keep one thing in mind: to counter these negative findings, carrageenan manufacturers have sponsored research of their own that refutes the danger of this ingredient. Therefore it’s important that when you search for scientific studies or journal articles relevant to this (or any) topic, be sure to fully research the author and the study sponsor. If either is associated with the industry in question, disregard the results of the study or at least consider the outright conflict-of-interest when reaching your own conclusions.
Is there any reason NOT to avoid Carrageenan?
We’ve already established that carrageenan provides no nutritional value and that we can’t digest it. Then, even though the food-grade form of this ingredient may not directly cause cancer, it’s pro-inflammatory effects cannot be argued. We also know for sure that it can lead to ulceration within the digestive tract as well as increase gut permeability (meaning that all sorts of things can leak out of the intestinal wall into the bloodstream, causing autoimmune responses by the body, not limited to digestive-system disease.) Since we know that inflammation is not good, and gut permeability is not good, and ulceration in the digestive tract is definitely not good, there seems to be no reason at all to continue consuming carrageenan in our diet.
Some foods that DON'T have Carrageenan . . .
I came across a very comprehensive list of foods that don’t have carrageenan, so rather than reinvent the wheel I’m going to provide that helpful link. Click here for Cornucopia Institute’s guide to organic foods without carrageenan. And of course there are plenty of wonderful recipes out there for almond milk, coconut milk, ice cream, etc. that you can make yourself to assure you stay carrageenan-free.
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Have you ever experienced digestive discomfort when you consume carrageenan? Can you live without this additive?
Thanks for reading! Sue
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