I learn from my patients every day. This week I was asked by one if the carrageenan in her almond milk was a concern. She suffered from arthritis, obesity, and heart disease. Although I was aware of a health issue regarding this food additive, I needed to read up on the topic before I responded to her concerns. Here is what I learned.
- Carrageenan is extracted from red seaweed and is added to many foods to thicken nonfat or low-fat foods or dairy replacements. It can also stabilize beverages that may otherwise separate, like chocolate milk. It is also used in meats like deli meats and chicken as a binder or for juiciness. It is found in many processed foods like frozen pizzas and food bars.
- This “natural” food ingredient can be transformed in acid to poligeenan or “degraded” carrageenan. In animal models degraded carrageenan is a potent inflammatory agent and is used in experiments to create inflammation to test new therapies. Degraded carrageenan is also listed as a possible carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the United Nations.
- Degraded carrageenan can be found in food products and is supposed to be kept <5% of the total. It has been reported that up to 25% of carrageenan in foods may be degraded but the industry producing it has taken exception with this (http://www.marinalg.org/misinterpreted-science-used-against-carrageenan/).
- Scientific reports have raised concerns about the health effects of carrageenan for years. A report in 2001 reviewed the literature on the harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in experimental animals. Higher rates of lesions, ulcerations and malignant tumors were described.
- In human intestinal cells, lab studies have defined in detail the pathway by which carrageenan induces inflammation (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18252714).
- In animal studies, carrageenan leads to elevated blood sugars and lipid levels even when there is no weight gain (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25883986).
- The Cornucopia Institute has an extensive review of the scientific studies on the safety of carrageenan and a list of products that contain it as an additive (cornucopia.org).
- There are insufficient case studies or series in humans to conclude whether and with what frequency carrageenan is causing clinical disease (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24467586).
So what did I tell my patient? I told her that the issue on the safety of carrageenan has not been resolved but there is reason to be concerned. I told her that one of the leading researchers in the field, Dr. Joanne Tobacman, has concluded that “carrageenan exposure clearly causes inflammation; the amount of carrageenan in food products is sufficient to cause inflammation; and degraded carrageenan and food-grade carrageenan are both harmful”. So what to do? In my opinion the majority of frozen pizzas, ice cream, and prepared chicken are not healthy choices whether they have carrageenan or not and should be avoided. But what about almond milk? For my family I have decided to purchase products that are free of carrageenan in order to avoid even a remote chance that they are pro-inflammatory and raise blood sugar.