Carrageenan is an indigestible carbohydrate that is extracted from red algae, Chondrus Crispus, often called Irish Moss. Most people have never heard of carrageenan but unless you consume a diet of totally unprocessed foods, you have ingested carrageenan. While carrageen has been around for centuries, refined carrageenan is found in a plethora of modern processed foods. The problem is carrageenan has raised serious concerns about its safety in the health-conscious community as it can cause inflammation, gut irritation, insulin resistance and interfere with cell vitality.
Often referred to as one of nature’s perfect stabilizers, carrageenan is used as a thickener and emulsifier to improve the texture of ice cream, cheese, bread, jelly, yogurt and lunchmeats along with numerous other processed foods. Carrageenan has no real nutritional value.
The use of carrageenan has increased more than five-fold, with over 200,000 tons used globally in 2010.
There are two types of carrageenan that differ in their chemical properties; degraded carrageenan (called poligeenan) and undegraded carrageenan. The difference between the two lies solely in their molecular weight.1 Undegraded carrageenan is currently approved for use in food products.
DIGESTIVE AND INFLAMATION ISSUES
Carrageenan appears to be particularly destructive to the digestive system, triggering your immune system to respond much the same way as when the body is invaded by pathogens. Dr. Joanne Tobacman is a strong advocate for the ban of carrageenan as a food-grade additive. She states carrageenan predictably ramps inflammation due to its chemical structure that activates an immune system response.2 If you have an inflammatory or digestive disorder, carrageenan should be avoided at all costs.
Research on glucose tolerance indicates that carrageenan impairs glucose tolerance, increases insulin resistance and inhibits insulin signaling in human liver cells; ingested carrageenan in the human diet may contribute to the development of diabetes.3 Carrageenan exposure intensifies the harmful effects of a high fat western diet and contributes to the soaring rates of diabetes we are experiencing.
Studies found that exposing human intestinal epithelial cells to carrageenan in amounts lower that would be found in a typical diet caused increased cell death and reduced cell proliferation.4 For vulnerable members of the population such as those who are elderly or those suffering from inflammatory bowel disease, caution is recommended.
While carrageenan is found in a variety of foods, it those with an organic label that has prompted the most intense conversations. Because carrageenan is derived from seaweed, it is perceived as being a “natural” ingredient. Carrageenan is frequently used in nut and soy milks to make sure the liquids remain mixed when it could be completely removed and replaced with ‘Shake Well” printed on the package. As a victory to consumers, the National Organic Standards Board recently voted to remove carrageenan from the list of substances approved for use in food items labeled “USDA Organic”.5
Carrageenan is linked to a variety of health concerns and given the large amounts of processed foods consumed in the western diet, it should not be considered a safe additive. Even with other alternative additives available, the Food and Drug Administration still allows the use of carrageenan in the food industry. If you adhere to traditionally prepared foods that support healthy, optimal digestion and absorption of nutrients you steer clear of any issues with carrageenan!
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO CUT CARRAGEENAN FROM YOUR DIET
- Yeager D. Carrageenan Under Fire. Today’s Dietitian. 2013;15(7):16.
- Tobacman JK. Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments.Environmental Health Perspectives. 2001;109(10):983-994.
- Bhattacharyya S, O-Sullivan I, Katyal S, Unterman T and Tobacman J. Exposure to the common food additive carrageenan leads to glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and inhibition of insulin signaling in HepG2 cells and C57BL/6J mice. 2012;55(1):194-203. doi:10.1007/s00125-011-2333-z.
- Bhattacharyya S, Borthakur A, Dudeja P, Tobacman J. Carrageenan Induces Cell Cycle Arrest in Human Intestinal Epithelial Cells in Vitro. Journal of Nutrition. 2008;138(3):469-475.
- Food Safety News: Board nixes use of carrageenan in organic food production. Newstex Trade & Industry Blob Website.
https://une.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.une.idm.oclc.org/docview/1841262664?accountid=12756. Updated November 18, 2016. Accessed January 25, 2017.