By Arwa Lodhi
Droves of us have given up cow milk for vegan ‘mylks’ thinking they are healthier. And the truth is, they would be – if it weren’t for the one ingredient most of them contain, which also just happens to be a carcinogen.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this ingredient – carrageenan – is ok, since so many foods marketed as ‘healthy’ contain it. Even some organic foods have it on their label! But researchers have recently shown that this thickening agent made from healthy seaweed can be actually bad for your health.
Foods With Carrageenan
Carrageenan is used as a food additive thickening emulsifier to improve the texture and consistency of foods. It doesn’t add flavour or increase shelf life – all it does is add thickness, which is why it’s most commonly found in boxed coconut, almond, cashew and dairy milks, yogurts, and ice creams, of both the dairy and vegan type.
It’s also in:
- Frozen dinners
- Organic Juices
- Frozen pizzas
- Deli meats such as sliced turkey
- Canned soups, both organic and not
- Processed sauces and dip mixes
- Infant formula
- Nutritional shakes
Of course, there are loads of healthy brands that make foods in these categories that don’t have carrageenan or any other major additives. Rude Health, for example, makes really pure almond and coconut milks. Be sure to read your labels!
What is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is a glucose related sugar called a sulfate polygalactan from normally good-for-you red seaweed and algae. Its name is derived from an Irish coastal region named “Carragheen,” where the original harvesting of the seaweed began.
The problem is that carrageenan is heavily processed with chemicals (potassium hydroxide) to remove the cellulose and neutralize its acidity. In its degraded form, carrageenan exposes an unstable sulfur compound that is known to cause inflammation in animals and humans; in fact, degraded carrageenan is commonly used in the scientific world in order to induce inflammation in lab animals.
This degraded form is called poligeenan and is not used in the food industry. However, it is known that when stable carrageenan is heated (almond latte, anyone?) or exposed to strong acids (such as stomach acid) the sulfur component becomes unstable and reactive, causing inflammation. And we all know that inflammation in the body can lead to several diseases, including cancer, right?
Once again, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not done its due diligence in testing food safety. As with aspartame and other toxins, they have listed the substance as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) since 1973 with very little safety testing, fooling even the most health conscious of us.
Carrageenan Consumption and Chronic Disease
Dr. Joanne Tobacman, MD, is a physician-scientist who has studied the carcinogenic effects of carrageenan for over 2o years. She found that the carrageenan was stable and safe while in the food product itself, but would too easily break down in the digestive process and cause health problems. Her research linked carrageenan consumption to the development of diabetes and digestive problems.
Dr. Tobacman also found that carrageenan could contribute to the development of ulcers and cancerous tissue growth. The International Agency for Research on Cancer reported in 1982 that there was enough evidence to claim that carrageenan is a likely carcinogen in humans.
A study dated to back to 1981 cautioned researchers to investigate carrageenan consumption in humans before widespread usage. This study used strong language and cited multiple sources showing that carrageenan has carcinogenic effects when added to food or drinking water of several animal species.
A 2012 study discussed how gut microflora metabolizes red seaweed and carrageenan and how this influences the balance of microbial species. Many experts believe that carrageenan promotes gut inflammation by altering the balance of microflora.
Some of the symptoms associated with altered gut microflora are similar to those found in studies associated with the use of carrageenan. This includes irritable bowel syndrome, colon polyps, ulcers, and abnormal tissue growths. Studies even propose that the body exhibits the same response to carrageenan as it does to a bacterial infection from Salmonella and its development of disease.
The Bottom Line on Carrageenan in Food Products
If you want optimal health and minimal cancer risk, it’s best to avoid food products containing carrageenan. Be sure to read labels and watch out for E407 – that’s the food additive code for the thickener. If your favorite foods contain carrageenan, look for alternative brands that are free of this like Rude Health and Orgain. If you adore a certain brand that does have carrageenan, then write the manufacturer and/or call their customer service number and ask them to remove it as soon as possible.
And of course, remember: it’s always best to make homemade nut milks. It’s super easy to do: just use a high speed food processor to blend nuts and water at a ratio of 1 to 3 (eg. using three cups water and one cup of nuts), then strain the liquid with either a cheesecloth or strainer. Add vanilla, cinnamon, a little raw honey or stevia to give it some sweetness, and then store in your refrigerator in a glass jar for up to around 3-5 days.
- The Cornucopia Institute: “Carrageenan: How a “Natural” food Additive is Making Us Sick”
- Yang B, et al. “Exposure to common food additive carrageenan leads to reduces sulfatase activity and increase in sulfated glycosaminoglycans in human epithelial cells.” Biochimie. 2012; 94(6): 1309-1316.
- The Cornucopia Institute: “Shopping Guide to Avoiding Organic Foods with Carrageenan”
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Seaweed Suspect”
- “Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments.” Environ Health Perspect. 2001; 109(10): 983-994.
- Necas J, & Bartosikova L. “Carrageenan: a review.” VeterinarniMedicina. 2013; 58(4): 187-205.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration Database of Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Reviews: Carrageenan
- Bhattacharyya S, Liu H, et al. “Carrageenan-Induced Innate Immune Response is Modified by Enzymes that Hydrolyze Distinct Galactosidic Bonds.” J NutrBiochem 2011; 21(10): 906-913.
- Watt J & Marcus R, “Harmful effects of carrageenan fed to animals.” Cancer Detect Prev. 1981; 4(1-4): 129-34.
- This article was adapted from an article in The Truth About Cancer. See the original here.