Knowing and understanding what is in your food is critical if you want to improve your health, heal from illness or just clean up your diet in general.
The natural food aisles at many grocery stores are growing exponentially, offering some wonderful new products and alternatives. However, many of these products still contain preservatives, additives, colorings and flavorings that can affect our health.
This is why I want to introduce the Ingredient Investigation Series. I will dive into an ingredient that is commonly found in our food products and share with you what I find. I will do my best to explain what the ingredient is, where it is found and what some research is telling us about the health and safety of that ingredient.
Unfortunately, food manufacturers are given quite a lot of leeway to decide for themselves what goes into our food, and often the research on the safety of these ingredients is lacking. Don’t forget … they are in the business of selling food, not health. Being aware of what is in your food, reading ingredient lists and becoming an educated consumer is the first step to experiencing great health.
We are starting the Ingredient Investigation Series with carrageenan.
With the rising popularity of non-dairy milks like soy and almond milk, carrageenan has been appearing more frequently on ingredient lists. This means that as consumers are choosing dairy alternatives, they are increasing their exposure to this ingredient.
What is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan was patented as a food additive in the United States in the 1930s. It is extracted from red seaweed and commonly used in food as a thickener or stabilizer.
There are several types of carrageenan, with the most important distinction being between degraded and undegraded carrageenan. While they are different chemically, the most important thing to know is that undegraded carrageenan is approved for use in food products, while degraded carrageenan is not. When we refer to carrageenan in food products, it is the undegraded type about which we are talking.
Where is carrageenan found?
Because of its ability to prevent separation, carrageenan is commonly used in yogurt, chocolate, non-dairy milks and ice cream. It is often used in low-fat versions of foods to give them a more fulfilling taste.
You can sometimes find it in certain frozen dinners, soups and pre-packaged broth products.
What does the research say about carrageenan?
Degraded carrageenan is recognized as a carcinogen in lab rats and therefore has been classified as a “possible human carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Most of the research done on carrageenan has been in the form of animal studies. Dr. Joanne K. Tobacman, associate professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Illinois in Chicago, is responsible for doing much of the research on this additive. Her studies associated degraded carrageenan (the type not allowed in food) with intestinal ulcerations and inflammation in lab animals that resembles ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease.
For obvious ethical reasons, human studies on the effects of carrageenan are very limited. However, a handful of in vitro experiments have been conducted that show increasing inflammation when undegraded carrageenan (the kind allowed in food) was administered. It is important to note that these studies were not done on the human body, so it is difficult to know exactly what kind of effects undegraded carrageenan causes when someone drinks almond milk or eats chocolate ice cream.
It is interesting to note that food regulatory agencies in the United States, the European Union and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) repeatedly review and continue to approve carrageenan as a safe food additive.
Is carrageenan safe?
Before we talk about the food additive itself, let us first talk about how carrageenan is processed. According to Cargill, a food ingredient supplier, carrageenan is first processed through alkaline extraction. This technique typically uses caustic solvents to extract the carrageenan from the red seaweed. Chances are these solvents remain in the final products and then used in food products. This could be concerning.
Since degraded carrageenan isn’t used in food products, it would seem that the undegraded version is completely safe. But, it is hard to know for sure.
Just as the red algea is processed to create carrageenan, our digestive system does its own processing of food and the additives, preservatives, flavorings and colors in our food. Some experimental evidence has shown that a significant amount of carrageenan in food may be converted to degraded carrageenan in the digestive tract and therefore cause inflammation in the digestive tract. Other research (funded by the carrageenan industry) states that carrageenan is stable throughout digestion.
We are continually learning what effects certain food products and ingredients have on our bodies and our health. Much is still unknown, and because everyone is different, something that makes one person sick might not affect another at all. If you experience digestive discomforts like gas and bloating or have been diagnosed with IBS, IBD, Crohn’s disease or Colitis, it might be helpful to remove carrageenan from your diet and see if this helps to decrease your symptoms. Working with a nutrition professional or naturopathic doctor can offer great support and guidance in identifying root causes of your symptoms and finding a path the healing and health.
To learn more about carrageenan, its potential health effects and the research behind it, check out the Cornucopia Institute at www.cornucopia.org and search carrageenan. Simple Google searches will also reveal a variety of articles and research for further reading.