Carrageenans: Does this natural ingredient have an unfair reputation or should I ban it from my diet?

It’s certainly true that to maximise optimal health, your diet must contain natural foods. However, just because a food is natural, it doesn’t automatically mean that it’s good for your health. In fact, the natural polysaccharide Carrageenan (extracted from red seaweed) is argued to be an allergen and possibly a carcinogen (in its refined isolated form).

This natural product was first used about 600 years ago in Carrageen County,

Carrageenans (Irish Moss) are extracted from Red Seaweed algae

Carrageenans (Irish Moss) are extracted from Red Seaweed algae

Ireland, when the locals starting using a red sea algae in their cooking for its gelling properties, which later came to be known as Irish Moss. Now known as Carrageenans, this is a food additive used as a thickener in dairy (ice creams, yoghurts, chocolate, cheeses, milks) and non-dairy products (Soy products). Carrageenans can also appear in so called health products such as Shakes or milk replacements, and in other not-so-healthy products like frozen dinners, beer, broth products and soups.

However, before we talk about the dangers of this ingredient, it is important to point out that there are in fact two varieties of carrageenan; degraded and undegraded. They have different molecular weights and undegraded Carrageenans are approved for use in food products in Europe and the US, whilst degraded Carrageenans are not.

Do we know for sure if Carrageenans are dangerous?

Back in the 1960’s lab tests were carried out on an animals which linked carrageenans to gastrointestinal disease, including colon cancer. Despite being from a natural source, this ingredient proved damaging to intestinal tracts by triggering a response in your immune system similar to the one your body creates when it is invaded by Salmonella-like pathogens. University of Illinois School of Medicine’s Professor of Clinical Medicine Joanne Tobacman MD, says the result of that immune response is an irritation of the gut as it dials up “inflammation, which can lead to ulcerations and bleeding”.

Some argue however that these tests are possibly flawed as degraded Carrageenans were used instead of undegraded ones. It’s claimed that degraded Carrageenans are more destructive to the health of animals than undegraded, and that these tests have given undegraded Carrageenans an unfairly bad reputation.

However, all carrageenans have been tested and shown to cause intestinal damage in certain animal studies. For example, when tested on rats, effects

Carrageenans have been found in some brand's Coconut and Almond milks.

Carrageenans have been found in some brand’s Coconut and Almond milks.

observed included diarrhoea and epithelial cell loss. Ulcers in the colon were caused when tested on Guinea pigs, and when experimenting on pigs, this ingredient caused abnormalities in the animal’s intestinal lining.

Charlotte Vallaeys, Director of Farm and Food Policy at organic watchdog organisation Cornucopia Institute, claims that all forms of Carrageenans are detrimental to human health though, and states that they have “no nutritional value” what-so-ever. Her organisation has criticised the use of this ingredient in organic products and so-called health products, so much so they have started a countrywide petition encouraging the Food and Drug Administration to completely ban it from our food supply.

Sounds bad, but have similar results been found in humans?

It cannot be known for sure yet if results from the above tests can be extrapolated to humans. Due to ethical reasons, there have obviously not been many (if any) tests carried out on humans, so no definitive statements can be made regarding the effects of carrageenans on human tissues at this time.

So what can you do if you wish to avoid this ingredient?

Simple. Check the labels of foods you suspect may be containing Carrageenans, as by law, food companies are required to list them. In the states it will be listed simply as Carrageenan, and in Europe they use the E Number E-407 or E-407a.


This is a guest post from Colin @ ABSAMC.

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