Carrageenan: Hard to Pronounce, Harder to Digest

Often overlooked on food labels, carrageenan may cause inflammation that can lead to cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

So, you decided to replace animal-based dairy and protein with a plant-based source of protein. That sounds like a good idea, but have you looked at the label? When you do, you’ll probably find an ingredient called carrageenan. Extracted from edible red seaweed, carrageenan is added to many foods as a thickening agent.

Added to everyday unhealthy foods like milk, cheese and ice cream, carrageenan is largely used in otherwise healthy, plant-based dairy products like almond and coconut milk to make them seem more milk-like. Carrageenan falls in the complex polysaccharide family, and sticks like crazy to proteins to make them agglomerate.

While carrageenan is organic and naturally processed from red seaweed, studies have shown that carrageenan has limited digestibility, is directly linked to severe inflammation and, in certain low molecular weight forms, called poligeenan, can cause cancer.

The inflammation properties of poligeenan are so prominent that it has been established as the go to chemical for inflammation inducement in lab experiments. To discover ways to block cancer, poligeenan is directly injected into the paws of lab rats to create immediate inflammation.

In one study, Dr. Joanne K. Tobacman exposed lab mice to low concentrations of food-grade carrageenan. She conducted her research over an 18-day span, and the mice developed profound glucose intolerance and impaired insulin action, which can lead to diabetes.1 A follow-up study found that food-grade carrageenan exacerbated the effects of a high fat diet in mice, leading to an earlier onset of glucose intolerance and elevated fasting blood glucose.2

Un-degraded carrageenan is the primary version of the ingredient that is commonly found in food but, when degraded, carrageenan dangers go far beyond inflammation. The degraded version, called poligeenan, causes intestinal ulcers in the colon and, in sufficiently high doses, leads directly to cancer. Samples of food-grade carrageenan were found to contain about 3-8% poligeenan.3

Additionally, Dr. Tobacman noted that food grade carrageenan can become degraded relatively quickly when it is exposed to acid digestion, heating, bacterial action and mechanical processing. So you could be exposed to poligeenan even when just consuming food-grade carrageenan.

There have been no definitive human studies on carrageenan, and the controversy over carrageenan continues. However, as a precaution, based on evidence from animal studies and in vitro cell studies, it would be prudent to eliminate exposure to carrageenan, especially if you already have an inflammatory condition or compromised health.

Inflammation Induced Health Risks

Inflammation is normally thought of as the body’s response to an injury or malady, but chronic inflammation is at the root of many debilitating and deadly diseases.

Rather than a specific body part inflaming because of a broken bone, bruise or pulled muscle, internal inflammation greatly affects the autoimmune process and limits the body’s ability to fight harmful diseases. Inflammation has been linked to obesity, ADHD, ADD, peripheral neuropathy, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, migraines, thyroid issues, dental issues, cancer and many other potentially deadly diseases.

Primarily caused by increased permeability in stomach lining, inflammation occurs largely from faulty diets that are high in alcohol, gluten, casein, processed foods, sugar and fast food. As a direct source of inflammation, carrageenan should be completely avoided.

Eating Healthy and Avoiding Carrageenan

The biggest problem with carrageenan is that it’s most commonly found in otherwise apparently healthy food products. It’s important to replace animal dairy and protein with plant-based almond milk or coconut milk and protein. And it’s vital to find plant-based products that do not use carrageenan.

  • 365 Whole Foods
  • Beber
  • OMilk NYC
  • Trader Joe’s
  • Wegmans
  • Westsoy

Coconut milk that doesn’t use carrageenan:

  • Native Forest
  • So Delicious
  • Tropical Traditions

Coconut water that doesn’t use carrageenan:

  • Coco Libre
  • Harmless Harvest Organic 100% Raw
  • Yoga Earth Purity

Additionally, all Hallelujah Diet supplements are carrageenan free and great sources of essential, organic nutrients. Specifically, Hallelujah Diet’s Essential Protein Pure Powder is 100% organic, entirely plant-based, and a delicious way to obtain the protein you need while avoiding carrageenan-packed dairy replacement products.

Takeaways

Always a good idea: read labels when buying new products. If an ingredient is foreign, look it up online to avoid harmful items. If carrageenan appears on a label, avoid that product at all costs, and refer to the list above for carrageenan-free alternatives.

References

  1. Bhattacharyya S, O-Sullivan I, Katyal S, Unterman T, Tobacman JK. Exposure to the common food additive carrageenan leads to glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and inhibition of insulin signalling in HepG2 cells and C57BL/6J mice. Diabetologia. 2011;55(1):194-203. doi:10.1007/s00125-011-2333-z.
  2. Bhattacharyya S, Feferman L, Unterman T, Tobacman JK. Exposure to Common Food Additive Carrageenan Alone Leads to Fasting Hyperglycemia and in Combination with High Fat Diet Exacerbates Glucose Intolerance and Hyperlipidemia without Effect on Weight. J Diabetes Res. 2015;2015. doi:10.1155/2015/513429.
  3. Spichtig V, Austin S. Determination of the low molecular weight fraction of food-grade carrageenans. Journal of Chromatography B. 2008;861(1):81-87. doi:10.1016/j.jchromb.2007.11.012.

Comments

  1. although your list above is a good start……it should be noted that just because one product in a company does not contain carigeenan, another product may. Organic Valley heavy cream DOES have carigeenan in it. so readers should still check all labels. I have found dozens more of the same example since I began looking for carigeenan in products a few years ago.

  2. Janet Beck December 29, 2015

    Since this is not specifically mentioned here, I’d like to also pass on the fact that The Food Babe says that carrageenan is “linked to inflammation in the digestive system and to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)…” This might be an eye-opener to those with IBS problems, specifically.

  3. Martin and Joyce Stevens January 3, 2016

    Thank you for this article. We have heard that carageenan is bad for us, but did not know why.

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