Carrageenan: What’s the Big Deal About this Food Additive?

carrageenan drink

Carrageenan is a common food additive that’s recently come under increased scrutiny because of possible health risks.

As a new Paleo eater, I no longer consume much dairy. To cream my coffee or make a nice soup, I turn to non-dairy substitutes like almond and coconut milk. But as I’ve recently discovered, these foods aren’t as safe as they seem. Investigate the label on popular dairy and non-dairy products, and you’re likely to see “carrageenan” listed among the ingredients. This food additive is causing a stir because of possible side effects.

carrageenan red seaweed 2

What is carrageenan?

At first glance, carrageenan sounds benign: it’s extracted from edible seaweeds, usually red seaweed (pictured above). Although carrageenan has no flavor or nutritional value, it can be used to substitute fat and to create thickness in non-fat or non-dairy foods. As such, you’re likely to find it on the label of your favorite milk, milk-substitute, cottage cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and many prepared foods.

Why should carrageenan be avoided?

Since carrageenan is derived from seaweed, you might be wondering why it’s to be avoided. After all, isn’t a seaweed-based food additive better than a chemical one? Unfortunately, four decades of research suggests the use of carrageenan in common food products could be putting your health at risk.

“The chemical structure of carrageenan–unique chemical bonds not found in other seaweeds or gums–affects the body in several ways. Most notably, it triggers an immune reaction, which leads to inflammation in the gastrointestinal system. Prolonged inflammation is a precursor to more serious diseases, including cancer,” explains the Cornucopia Institute in “Carrageenan: How a “Natural” Food Additive Is Making Us Sick.”

For ethical reasons, most carrageenan research has been carried out with animal test subjects. Consumption has produced intestinal damage, epithelial cell loss, increased intestinal permeability, diarrhea, and ulcers in the colon. Results varied between species of animal however, which makes it even more difficult to isolate the effect on humans. However, as this detailed article from health and nutrition specialist Chris Kresser explains, in vitro studies of carrageenan carried out using human cells support the idea that the food additive creates unnecessary inflammation in the body.

Are you at risk?

The good news is that in most cases, food-grade carrageenan is used in such low concentrations that it probably won’t affect most people. The bad news is that if you follow a vegan or Paleo diet, in which non-dairy substitutes are used more often, you might be increasing your carrageenan intake, and with it, your risk. If you’ve been experiencing chronic digestive issues and can’t figure out why, carrageenan could be the culprit.

“[A]nyone suffering from gastrointestinal symptoms (irritable bowel syndrome/IBS, spastic colon, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic diarrhea, etc.) to consider completely eliminating carrageenan from the diet to determine if carrageenan was a factor in causing the symptoms,” advises the Cornucopia Institute.

Consult this handy shopping guide to avoid organic foods with carrageenan.

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Images: JohnnyMrNinja and Peter Southwood