Do you suffer from gastrointestinal complaints after eating certain foods? Are you wondering if you are lactose intolerant but then realize the symptoms are still present with non-dairy alternatives or foods that are dairy free? It is possible, and likely, you are experiencing a symptomatic response to the inclusion of carrageenan in your foods.
Carrageenan is a common ingredient added to many foods for its gelling, thickening and stabilizing ability. It increases viscosity and improves the texture of foods for increased palatability. Carrageenan is also popular as it can be used as a vegetarian and vegan alternative to gelatin. It is a polysaccharide, with no nutritional value, derived from red edible seaweeds common in the Atlantic Ocean near Britain, Continental Europe and North America. While it is most commonly used in dairy, non-dairy, and meat foods, its shelf presence is becoming more prominent in many packaged foods that extend beyond meat and dairy and include even organic products!
Recent and ongoing research of the use of carrageenan in food has been linked to growing health concerns including: gastrointestinal inflammation, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcers, gastrointestinal bleeding, tumors, malignancies, insulin resistance and systemic inflammation. When ingested it can cause an immune and symptomatic response that is similar to a pathogen invasion, i.e. think e coli.
While carrageenan has become more “front page” news recently, its health concerns date back as early as the 1960’s when researchers linked the ingredient to ulcerative colitis, intestinal lesions and colon cancer in animals. More recent animal studies linked degraded carrageenan to tumor promotion (1,2,3) and a review of 45 publicly funded studies concluded “the potential role of carrageenan (degraded or undegraded) in the development of gastrointestinal malignancy and inflammatory bowel disease requires careful reconsideration of the advisability of its continued use as a food additive” (4). The author, Joanne K. Tobacman, M.D., associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, concluded that all forms of carrageenan (degraded or undegraded) substantially increase risk of inflammation and considerable health complications. In addition she presented her findings in 2012 to the National Organic Standards Board to urge them to reconsider of the use of carrageenan in organic foods. Sadly, to date carrageenan is still allowed as an ingredient in organic foods. Research remains ongoing at the NIH on the negative health effects of carrageenan, specifically its involvement in ulcerative colitis and diabetes.
Despite animal and human research linking carrageenan to significant health concerns, its use has become more prominent in packaged foods. Here is a broad list of food and non-food products commonly containing carrageenan:
Shelf Stable Milk Products, i.e. Horizon Organic Milk
Non-dairy Milk Products, i.e. soy, almond, coconut, rice milk etc.
Diet Sodas (to enhance texture and flavors)
Beer (clarifier to reduce haze causing proteins)
Veggie Meats (i.e. Veggie dogs)
Nutraceuticals (Nutrition Supplements)
Personal lubricants*(*Note promising research and ongoing clinical trials are being done looking at the inclusion of carrageenan in personal female lubricants in preventing the transmission of HIV, HPV and HSV infections)
If you are concerned with the inclusion of carrageenan in your food and/or you are experiencing symptoms that you believe are linked to ingesting carrageenan you will want to avoid it. Carrageenan is listed in the ingredient section of any food that has a label, therefore be a conscientious consumer and READ THE INGRDIENTS! Cornucopia.org has a thorough and up to date shopping guide on how to navigate the supermarket and avoid carrageenan.
- Taché, S, Peiffer, G, Millet, A-S, and Corpet, DE. Carrageenan gel and aberrant crypt foci in the colon of conventional and human flora-associated rats. Nutr Cancer 37:75–80, 2000.
- Corpet, DE, Taché, S, and Préclaire, M. Carrageenan given as a jelly, does not initiate, but promotes the growth of aberrant crypt foci in the rat colon. Cancer Lett 114:53–55, 1997b.
- Cohen S and Ito N (2002) A critical review of the toxicological effects of carrageenan and processed eucheuma seaweed on the gastrointestinal tract.Crit Rev in Toxicol 32(5):413-444
- Tobacman JK (2001) Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments.Environ Health Perspect. 109(10):983-984.
The information provided in this post is for education only and is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor should it be used as a replacement for seeking medical treatment.
Copyright © Jaime Coffey Martinez, MS RD Nutrition CPR, LLC