Derived from red seaweed, carrageenan is a food grade additive primarily used as a thickener, to give various foods and beverages a fattier feel -without the full fat ingredients. On the surface it appears seemingly harmless, but its been regularly tied to various forms of unwanted body inflammation amongst other issues.
I was first made aware of carrageenan when shopping with a friend of mine at a local health food store. Having opted away from cow’s milk for quite a few years now, I’ve gone through a bevy of satisfying alternatives including rice, oat and almond milk over that time. One of my most recent and recurring choices has been an unsweetened chocolate almond milk, that I personally found to be perfect as a part of my morning protein shake.
It was as I was grabbing several of these off of the shelf, that my friend pointed out to me, that the milk I had been purchasing has carrageenan listed as one of its final ingredients. She went on to list a number of the reasons as to why I may want to avoid carrageenan, and helped me look for a potential alternative - eventually settling upon a chocolate rice milk.
This experience naturally sparked my curiosity, leading me to do some further research into carrageenan and ultimately to write this article.
Here is some of what I found:
What Is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is a food grade additive derived from red seaweed that is primarily used as a thickener in various foods and beverages. Seaweed variations have been used in food production for quite some time in history to help create a gel-like texture. However in modern day, isolated carrageenan has been the variation most commonly used and it’s the one that has been tied to the most health concerns.
Currently carrageenan can be found in a number of regularly used foods and beverages including but not limited to: gluten free foods, sugar free foods, vegetarian foods, vegan foods, dairy products (ice cream, squeezable yogurts, chocolate milk), dairy alternatives (soy milk, hemp milk, almond milk), gluten free bread, nutritional drinks (Ensure, Slimfast) and prepared foods (canned soups, microwavable dinners, pet foods).
What Health Concerns Has Carrageenan Been Tied To?
The biggest health concern that carrageenan has been regularly tied to in humans is inflammation, which may sound relatively minor, but with prolonged exposure can be tied to some serious health conditions.
The reasoning seems to lie within the chemical structure of carrageenan, which when consumed triggers an autoimmune response within the body. For those that are unaware, an autoimmune response is when your immune system cells begin to attack your body's healthy tissue much like it would to any bacteria or a virus.
The result of this autoimmune response stemming from carrageenan ingestion is most often inflammation of the gastrointestinal system - which is made up of the oral cavity, salivary glands, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, liver, gall bladder and pancreas. The inflammation could initially result in something as minor as a bloated stomach, but could also extend into irritable bowel syndrome and several related diseases.
Several studies have been conducted to further explore the exact impact that carrageenan has on the human body and the results have been somewhat scattered -primarily over whether or not it warrants classification as a carcinogen. Whether it one day receives that label or not, carrageenan certainly warrants some level of warning and your consumption of it should be at least monitored.
I am not a medical professional so I cannot prescribe anything formally, but I can only speak from my own experience and decision - which at this point is to stop consuming the products containing carrageenan (primarily the almond milk in my case) and to see how my body reacts/ feels.