Carrageenan is an additive made from red seaweed and is found in many foods primarily to suspend/emulsify ingredients and to improve texture and mouth-feel. It has been used for many years in products like ice cream and other dairy (including infant formula), plant-based dairy substitutes (like soy, coconut, hemp, almond milk), toothpaste, and others. It is used in both conventional and organic products alike and it apparently has a molecular structure much like plastic – yum!
In the past few decades, there have been a large number of studies conducted on the use of carrageenan and its side-effects in animals. Guess what they found? Carrageenan is linked to gastro-intestinal inflammation and disease, including cancer (like colon cancer). In fact, scientists have been using carrageenan for years to specifically incite an acute inflammatory response in lab animals. I assume so they can test ways to fix it.
One of the things that a paleo diet helps to eradicate is chronic inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to a problem or injury and this is great. The bigger concern is when there is chronic (constant, low-level) inflammation in the body because this has been linked to a host of different diseases.
During my Whole 30, I avoided any products that had carrageenan because that was one of the rules (Melissa and Doug Hartwig, the authors of It Starts with Food, agree that carrageenan has too many high risk factors to be worth it, so it’s out). It got me looking at labels and eschewing almond and soy milk as possibilities in my coffee because, unless you make your own, it is difficult to find these products without carrageenan. I also noticed that there is something about the flavor that I don’t like. I think it makes my coffee taste muddy, but I attributed it to the nuts rather than the carrageenan. In fact, I now believe that it’s the carrageenan that I was tasting and I just happen to be extremely sensitive to it. I think it tastes a bit like petroleum. I have found the same off-putting flavor in products with guar gum (another plant-based emulsifier), like canned coconut milk, and sought out a brand that doesn’t have any of that in it. Now I’m wondering if its molecular structure is similar to plastic too and maybe I just don’t like eating plastic!
Anyway, this post comes about because you might remember that one of the very few things that I missed while doing my Whole 30 was cream in my coffee. I had started reintroducing dairy to see if I had any adverse reactions and didn’t see anything noticeable. We had company this weekend so I decided to get some cream and am trying to stick with dairy from grass-fed/pastured sources so that the fat content is full of nutrients that aren’t found, or at least not in the same quantity, in ordinary dairy. I got Organic Valley’s Pasture-raised Heavy Whipping Cream.
The first morning that I tried it, I thought it tasted weird but figured it was because I had actually grown to prefer my coffee black. I tried it a second time and even asked my friend if she thought it tasted weird. THEN I checked the package. I know…should have done this first, but it’s cream! Fat is what gives food excellent mouth-feel so it never occurred to me that there would be anything other than cream in it. Apparently I’m a slow learner when it comes to what the food industry deems a good idea. There is carrageenan in my cream.
Ironically, there was a quick blurb in the December issue of a magazine I subscribe to that mentioned the concerns of carrageenan and what Dr. Joanne Tobacman, a physician-scientist at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and the leading expert after 20 years of studying it, had to say.
The report is covered here and it’s eye-opening and distressing.
Some companies have voluntarily begun removing carrageenan from their foods, thank goodness, but many others are putting up a fight. You see, without carrageenan, you might have to shake something, like your chocolate milk, before drinking it. Seriously? At least I’d know what I’m shaking!
What it boils down to is this: We all have to make choices about the food and drink that we consume based on the information we have available. I sure wish I could rely on the FDA to provide that information and guidance because I already know that I can’t rely on the food industry, which has goals very different from mine. So read your labels before you consume and make the best choice you can…for your health!
A few things that I found interesting:
An abstract from the National Institute of Health / Articles like this one, this one, and this one
Note: I am not a doctor or a scientist. I’m just a mom trying to figure out the best way for my family and me to be healthy.