Carra-what? If you're not paying attention to ingredients in your food, then you might not have heard of carrageenan. But, carrageenan is widely used within the food industry and even called a 'natural alternative'. You can find it in processed foods including organic & vegan food.
What is carrageenan?
Carrageenan is derived from an edible red seaweed. It's used in food as a thickener and a stabilizer. Think about how some of your drinks never separate, or why the texture of your ice-cream is so smooth. You can find it in everything from coffee creamer to yogurt.
Even though it has no nutritional value, the food industry likes to use carrageenan because it is cheap and extends the shelf life of some foods. It can be used as a substitute for fat and thickener in low fat and nonfat foods. It stabilizes drinks that can separate such as nutritional drinks that don't require to be shaken or stirred.
If carrageenan is in everything then it must be safe...right?
"The unique chemical structure of carrageenan triggers an innate immune response in the body, recognizing it as a dangerous invader. This immune response leads to inflammation." Cornucopia Institute
Inflammation is a natural response in your body during injury. It's used to help you to heal. The problem arises when there is too much inflammation in the body which can lead to chronic diseases. Imagine you are hitting yourself with a hammer. It can be a big hammer or a little hammer, but you're constantly hitting yourself with it. You're never going to heal where you're getting hit because it's constant. In fact, the area where you're getting hit only gets more sore and worse. This is basically what is happening in your body when you're constantly eating food that causes inflammation in the body.
Carrageenan in particular, has been scientifically proven to cause inflammation leading to gastrointestinal issues from bloating to diarrhea to irritable bowel syndrome. Research dating back to the 1960s has since shown that carrageenan in foods caused gastrointestinal issues in animals (it's even in dog food), including ulcerative colitis, intestinal lesions and colon cancer.
It has also been linked to diabetes. According to a 2012 study, the food additive caused glucose tolerance which increased insulin resistance and inhibited the signaling of insulin in the liver in mice. It is suggested that this can have the same effect on humans who eat foods with carrageenan.
What does the food industry have to say?
There is some literature that will tell you that undegraded carrageenan is safe for you, which is the food grade that you're eating. In a review of the harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments, the researchers found that "exposure to undegraded as well as to degraded carrageenan was associated with the occurrence of intestinal ulcerations and neoplasms." (neoplasm - a new and abnormal growth of tissue in some part of the body, especially as a characteristic of cancer). They argued that this degradation likely occurred by the stomach acids during normal digestion.
Degraded carrageenan or poligeenan is used to induce inflammation in lab animals in order for drug companies to test their anti-inflammatory drugs. We know that poligeenan causes inflammation. Testing in samples of foods containing carrageenan also found high levels of the poligeenan.
Staying away from processed food is your best way to optimal health. But in the cases where you have no other choice, read the ingredients and opt out of eating anything that has carrageenan in it. Your tummy with thank you for it.
Also, check out my video above and my recipe for a healthy, vegan creamer that is thick & rich and free of any carrageenan.
Scarlett is a business owner and lover of pretty things. She started this blog to share some of her witticisms and favorite things.