By Abra Pappa for Nutritious America
What is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is a polysaccharide derived from red seaweed and it has molecular qualities similar to plastic. Seaweed sounds innocent enough; it’s natural right? Absolutely, as a matter of fact, many types of seaweed are commonly used as a medicinal food to support many conditions like thyroid disorder and even cancer. However, not all seaweed is created equal and the process in which carrageenan is extracted from the red seaweed has become the cornerstone of a debate about allowed ingredients in organic products.
What is it typically found in?
Carrageenan functions as a natural thickener or emulsifier. It helps improve the texture or “mouth feel” of a product. It is commonly seen as an additive in things like non-dairy milk, like almond and coconut, to improve the “creamy” quality of the product. It is also used in things like toothpaste, beer, and gummy or jelly based products.
What’s so wrong with it?
Carrageenan has a long history of causing inflammation, specifically gastrointestinal inflammation. In fact, in the past, many scientists used carrageenan to CAUSE inflammation in order to study how specific drugs could reduce inflammation and to study the cells involved in the inflammatory response. Regular consumption of carrageenan also has a high correlation to different types of gastrointestinal cancers in rats. Carrageenan has been deemed GRAS, Generally Recognized As Safe, and certainly would be safe if consumed in modest quantities.
The problem is carrageenan makes things taste better. If you are an almond milk drinker I can promise you the creamiest and the best almond milk. The one you most likely prefer is better because of carrageenan. Because it makes products taste better more and more manufacturers are using it in their products, making it harder to consume in modest quantities.
How do I avoid it or limit my consumption of it?
Read labels. If you find that you are purchasing and consuming many products with carrageenan, then begin to look for alternative brands that do not use it. Or, alternate between brands so you aren’t consuming it on a regular basis.
In late May, the National Organic Standards Board voted 10 to 5 to keep carrageenan on the list of non-organic ingredients that can be used in “certified organic” products. This pass on carrageenan certainly means that we will see it used more frequently in “health” food products.
Cornucopia.org has a thorough Shopping Guide to Avoiding Organic Foods with Carrageenan, which includes Horizon and Organic Valley chocolate milk, Silk soymilk, Rice Dream frozen desserts, and Applegate Farms deli meat.
milk image via foodnetwork.com