Is carrageenan unhealthy?

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Carrageenan is a common food/non-food additive that derived its name from Irish Moss seaweed, or Chondrus Crispus. This non-nutritive additive is produced from seaweeds and/or algae and is used primarily as a thickening agent to hold compounds together, for instance, in toothpastes, non-dairy milks, ice creams, soups, sauces, and even in pet food. Even though carrageenan has been used for hundreds of years, studies are still being conducted on the safety of its use.The question is this: is carrageenan safe for us to use in our everyday lives, both for consuming and non-food uses?

In 2001, a study was conducted to see how carrageenan reacts in the body after consumption. Although this study was performed on animals, scientists predict the negative findings could possibly equate to the metabolism of humans. Scientists found that the exposure to carrageenan produced “colonic ulcerations” and gastrointestinal problems in animals that may have been due to the acid hydrolysis reaction inside the stomach or the interaction with intestinal bacteria. Unfortunately, it is unknown how much of the additive it took to produce these harmful effects but the scientists suggest the consumption of carrageenan should be reevaluated nonetheless.

What I personally find interesting is that carrageenan is found primarily in processed foods which contain a hefty amount of refined carbohydrates, sugars, and very little nutritional value whatsoever. It makes me wonder if scientific studies used 100% carrageenan for their test subjects or if they used foods that contained them. Perhaps there is a negative synergistic effect when one consumes the additive in over-processed foods.

Personally, my intake of carrageenan is somewhat moderate. For instance, my largest source of carrageenan probably comes from the store-bought almond milk that I drink. I predict that the additive is used in such a fashion so that the ingredients used in making the nondairy milk can chemically stay together. Furthermore, I have never experienced any gastrointestinal complications after drinking almond milk or any other food that contains it. I hardly consume processed foods, where carrageenan is prominently found. Perhaps I just am not eating enough carrageenan to show any negative effects, such as those found in certain scientific research studies.  

According to a well-known scientific researcher, Joanne K. Tobacman, M.D., now associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, carrageenan was once used to cause inflammation in the body so that anti-inflammatory drugs can be used afterwards to test their effectiveness. Tobacman also found that laboratory mice that were fed low concentrations of carrageenan for about two and a half weeks developed intolerance to glucose and also had impaired insulin action. This, in turn, was concluded to cause diabetes. The article ends with Dr. Weil saying, “I recommend avoiding regular consumption of foods containing carrageenan… especially important advice for persons with inflammatory bowel disease.”

In closing, carrageenan still needs to be studied upon for its safety. The best way one can make sure carrageenan isn’t harmful for them is to observe how they feel after consuming food or using a product that contains it.

Sources:
  • Weil, Andrew. "Dr. Weil." http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/id/QAA44833
  • Miller, Becky. "Livestrong.com." http://www.livestrong.com/article/446385-what-has-carrageenan-in-it/
  • "Cyber Colloids." http://www.cybercolloids.net/library/carrageenan/introduction-carrageenan-structure
  • "Chemistry Daily." http://www.chemistrydaily.com/chemistry/Carrageenan
  • JK, Tobacman. "NCBI." http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11675262

Joanna Tenderro | Blog | Twitter | Facebook | Google+
San Diego, CA Born and raised in San Diego, CA, Joanna has been vegan since mid-2010 and is passionate about nutrition, animal rights, eco-friendly living, and yoga. She's studying to major in the field of nutrition to counsel and educate those around her about living and eating healthy... the vegan way.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/mikecogh

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