Carrageenan is a highly processed additive extracted from red seaweed and there is mounting evidence regarding the dangers associated with its stability, systemic inflammation, gastrointestinal disorders, immune system deregulation, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and tumor promotion. And, while carrageenans are technically derived from protists, neither plant nor animal, the question remains, “Does a questionable sea creature additive need to be floating around in vegan almond milk?”
“Studies indicate that carrageenan is in fact degrading in food and scientists are concerned that the acid environment of the stomach may also ‘degrade’ carrageenan once it enters the digestive system, thus exposing the intestines to this potent and widely recognized carcinogen,” explains Karen Langston, Certified Nutritionist and Board Member for the National Association of Nutrition Professionals.
Carrageenan is a sulfate polygalactan, a glucose-related sugar, sourced from red seaweed of the class Rhodophyceae and algae. The name is derived from a region off the Irish coast—‘“Carragheen,” “Carragahen-,” or “Carraigin”—where the seaweed was originally harvested. Carrageenan’s are now widely used throughout the food industry as gelling, thickening, or emulsifying agents to improve the texture of food. Jellies, puddings, sweetened condensed milks, ice cream, milk shakes, whipped cream, cottage cheese, soups, and even infant formulas have all been known to conceal carrageenan to increase their viscosity.
Natural health consumers are concerned about residual toxins occurring as a result of carrageenan processing. According to the Handbook of Food Additives, 2nd Edition by T.E. Furia, extracting carrageenan from sea algae involves using alkaline solutions and either drum drying or alcohol precipitation, which can create impurities. National attention was brought to this processing when in their 2013 Sunset Proposal, the
National Organic Standards Board Handling Committee concludes that the chemical processing of carrageenan renders it a synthetic substance and recommends that it be reclassified as such.
In addition to its processing, there is concern regarding the size and stability of carrageenan molecules. Three main forms of carrageenan exist: iota-, kappa-, and lambda, each with a distinct molecular weight and sensitivity to
degradation. Food grade carrageenan for instance, has an average molecular mass of 400 ± 600 kDa with a minimum of 100 kDa. Small carrageenan molecules can cause bodily damage and large ones can degrade into toxic substances. Although the FDA currently views food products with low levels of degraded carrageenans as safe for consumption, studies suggest that even small amounts of degraded carrageenan can induce inflammation and gastrointestinal disorders.
The Carrageenan Controversy: Carrageenan In Milk Substitutes
The carrageenan controversy was brought into the limelight in April 2012 when Dr. Joanne Tobacman, a physician-scientist at the University of Illinois, Chicago, appealed to the National Organic Standards Board in Washington D.C. to reconsider the 1958 Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status of carrageenan based on her work with both high-molecular-weight (food grade) and degraded carrageenans in more than 18 peer-review papers. She expressed significant concern that carrageenan at various molecular weights and degraded carrageenan were potentially harmful to the body. Dr. Tobacman reported that she used small amounts of high-molecular-weight carrageenan in her experiments and it induced inflammation via three major pathways. One of these pathways of inflammation is similar to a pathway activated by the pathogenic bacteria
Salmonella and may lead to long-term inflammatory effects. Additional experiments with lower-molecular-weight carrageenan demonstrated its extra-colonic effects and potential relationship to diabetes when laboratory mice developed glucose intolerance and impaired insulin action.
In response to Dr. Tobacman’s
appeal, the FDA issued a denial letter with the decision to keep carrageenan’s GRAS status. Although they acknowledged data on the potentially biological hazards of non-oral routes of poligeenan, a form of chemically degraded carrageenan, the FDA claimed that, due to the unlikelihood of high-molecular-weight carrageenan degrading when exposed to gastric juices, the effects of eating food containing carrageenan were considered non-toxic.
However, data from other stability studies appear to conflict with the FDA’s claim, since carrageenan has been shown to cause gastric inflammation in some
animal models. The FDA also refuted evidence that food products contained significant amounts of degraded carrageenan based on a study reviewing 29 food-grade carrageenan samples. The study, however, had a lower limit of detection of five percent and found evidence of potentially degraded carrageenan up to that limit.
In a 2003 review of this data, the European Scientific Committee on Food
recommended that food products containing carrageenan must have levels of carrageenan lower than five percent, reflective of current industry standards. However, five percent is not zero, and data from animal studies where five percent carrageenan in drinking water was administered to rodents resulted in gastrointestinal tract disorders. Moreover, data from research where a drinking solution containing one percent of degraded carrageenan was administered to rhesus monkeys resulted in immune cell irregularities and raises the question of whether even low levels of carrageenan in food products are acceptable for human consumption.
Further controversy exists regarding the safety of processed carrageenan bound to food proteins when exposed to extreme temperatures during baking or cooking. Almond milk is often used as a substitute for cow’s milk in numerous vegan recipes and is often boiled or baked in goods heated up to 350 F. If almond milk is boiled, a separation of the liquid occurs and a gelatinous substance falls out of solution as it cools. The result makes the almond milk thin and significantly alters the taste, leaving a flat, mineral-like flavor. Biochemically, since carrageenans’ molecular structure has been shown to be sensitive to varying temperatures when heated or cooled, resulting in degraded carrageenan, cooking foods containing processed carrageenan may break down carrageenan and prove
toxic. Additional differences in flavor, texture, and viscosity of milk alternatives with carrageenan can appear thicker, feel oily in the mouth, and taste bitter.
Vegans can turn to non-dairy milk alternatives without carrageenan or make their own almond milk. The
Cornucopia Institute updates research, activist initiatives, and FDA responses, and has developed a detailed shopping guide to help consumers avoid foods containing carrageenan.
The Carrageenan Controversy: Carrageenan In Medicine
Outside of its food uses, carrageenan has been added to numerous products including shoe polish and air fresheners and, ironically, has a growing role in medicines to treat ulcers, bronchitis, and
influenza. According to WebMD there may be some side effects, as carrageenan has several potential drug interactions including an unsafe drop in blood pressure, decreased medicine absorption, and slowing of blood clotting.
Also, some medicinal preparations, including one used to treat peptic ulcers in France, contain a
chemically-altered form of carrageenan with a low-molecular weight, which WebMD notes has been linked to cancer. Moreover, exposure to poligeenan, often used in pharmaceutical products like barium enemas, has been linked to anaphylaxis, ulcerative colitis, and inflammatory diseases.
Individuals who have sensitivities or suffer from gastrointestinal disorders may wish to track symptoms in response to foods containing carrageenan or avoid it altogether. “If you are dealing with gastrointestinal symptoms that are not being relieved … Avoid any products that contain carrageenan or any of the derivative names for at least a month,” says Certified Nutritionist Karen Langston. “Start with a symptom journal; list all of your symptoms on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most uncomfortable. Once a week, go over your symptoms list and rerate them. See if some of your symptoms lesson or abate.”
Julie A. Cerrato is a Corporate Wellness Consultant and Health Educator, specializing in workplace wellness, nutrition, fitness, ergonomics, health e-Tools and holistic living. Julie has a unique blend of allopathic and alternative medicine training with degrees in Cancer Biology, Yoga, Ayurveda (Indian Medicine) and Acupressure. On the health education front, Julie is aleading advocate for holistic wellness. Beyond her Well-Blog Julie is San Francisco Holistic Health Editor for www.examiner.com, Ayurveda Co-Editor for www.allthingshealing.com and a Health Advisor for www.wholesomeone.com. She has been featured on Veria Living TV, Philly Burbs, Experiencing Nirvana TV, The Master’s Channel TV and Culinary Conversations Radio, and is a guest chef for healthy living gourmet food stores like Whole Foods Market and The Tubby Olive. Julie is available for Holistic Health Coaching and Corporate Wellness Events. For more information, please visit www.vedahealth.net, @vedahealth, Facebook or contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 832-368-9096.