Carrageenan: Friend or Foe?
At times, we try to solve one problem, but unwittingly create other more serious problems with our solution.
In the 60s, comedian Pat Paulsen was a regular on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In one of his comedy routines, he invented a transistor radio that didn’t require batteries–because he powered it with a lawnmower engine. True, the gas motor did provide the needed energy to run the radio, but with comedic blunder, no one could hear the radio over the noise of the lawn mower engine powering it!
In the processed food industry, it seems that a similar blunder may have been exposed regarding the food additive carrageenan. Carrageenan is an extract from red algae seaweed found in the ocean. That may sound “natural”, but what’s curious is that it contains absolutely no nutritional value and the human body cannot digest it. Yet it has been used extensively in processed foods for the past 50 years.
Carrageenan is added to processed foods as a thickener, emulsifier, and stabilizer. As such it gives things like ice cream its smooth texture and prevents dairy products and other liquids from separating in their containers. Because carrageenan has been viewed as “natural”, it has found its way into both organic and non-organic processed foods.
Carrageenan is also used medicinally for treating respiratory issues, peptic ulcers, skin irritation, and as a stabilizer in medications. The fact that carrageenan is used for medicinal purposes should not surprise us since many supplements and prescription drugs can be toxic if overused, or interact with other medications.
Some feminine products also contain carrageenan.
Why is carrageenan considered dangerous?
There are two forms of carrageenan: degraded and undegraded. We have known for years that degraded carrageenan causes inflammation and is harmful to humans. For this reason, degraded carrageenan has long been rejected as a food additive. In fact, “The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Research Council of the United States have both determined that degraded carrageenan is a carcinogen.”
But it was thought that undegraded carrageenan was harmless. Consequently, the FDA has labeled undegraded, or food-grade carrageenan as GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe).
However, in recent years, Dr. Joanne K. Tobacman, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, has conducted clinical studies linking food-grade carrageenan with malignancies and other stomach problems. Dr. Tobacman has concluded that undegraded carrageenan is also harmful to humans.
Dr. Tobacman has found that exposure to any form of carrageenan causes inflammation and that even the tiny amounts we ingest in processed foods are sufficient to inflame tissues. This is a huge concern, because we know that many serious diseases stem from chronic inflammation. Some of these diseases include:
Dr. Tobacman explains that undegraded carrageenan can degrade through the simple processes of heating, digestion, bacterial action and mechanical processing. As a result, some in the medical and natural health community caution against consuming foods that contain carrageenan.
But another study is even more alarming. Researchers studying the effects of food-grade carrageenan determined that it impairs glucose tolerance, increases insulin resistance and inhibits insulin signaling. While these experiments were conducted on mice, they suggest that carrageenan may contribute to the development of diabetes in humans, as well.
In response to consumer concern over carrageenan, the company Whitewave recently committed to removing carrageenan from their food products and other companies are likely to follow suit.
No doubt, the big question gnawing at your mind is, “What foods contain carrageenan?” The Cornucopia Institute has prepared a lengthy list of organic products that are made with carrageenan. The list of non-organic products that contain this substance is undoubtedly too large to list, but Good Guide is a great resource and lists many of these products. Fortunately, the FDA requires food manufacturers to include carrageenan on their ingredients’ lists on food packaging.
What should be my course of action?
Let me offer four ways to respond to this information:
- To the extent possible, avoid processed foods and eat whole foods only. An apple, carrot, or grass-fed beef will not contain carrageenan. (Some processed meats do!) Whole foods are always the health choice.
- Check labels. If you do purchase processed food, which can include yogurt or cottage cheese, check the label to make sure it does not contain carrageenan. Look for brands that are free of this additive.
- Don’t assume that “organic” means “no bad stuff included.” The label “organic” is a regulated term we can trust. However, because carrageenan can be considered organic, it is allowed as an additive in organic foods. (Of course cow pies are “organic” too, but you wouldn’t want to eat one!)
- If you suffer from acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers or other issues caused by inflammation, Barton Publishing offers several natural remedy solution kits that I highly recommend.
Unlike Pat Paulsen’s solution of the lawn-mower-powered radio, I don’t think that carrageenan as a food additive is something to take lightly. What do you think?