Watch Out For Carrageenan
We live in a world rife with processed foods. Even when we try our very best to eat real, whole foods, dangerous additives can slip unnoticed into our meals. In the past, I’ve written about the dangers of gluten and soy — foods we can avoid but must read labels carefully to watch out for.
Now, I’d like to share with you another additive to watch out for: carrageenan (pronounced care-a-GHEE-nan). Keep in mind, I don’t share this information to frighten you, but to raise your level of awareness so you can be your healthiest self.
What is carageenan and why does it exist?
Carrageenan is a polysaccharide (a carbohydrate molecule) that is derived from red seaweed. It is made by boiling the seaweed and extracting the carrageenan. It is often used in conjunction with agar, guar gum, or xantham gum in foods. It is rampant in processed foods but is also found in many foods branded “organic.”
Carageenan exists to emulsify foods. Foods like low-fat cheese or milk alternatives (e.g., almond milk) will naturally separate, melt, or foam as they sit in the refrigerator or travel across the country. Carrageenan is added to these foods to prevent separation, create a ticker texture, and save consumers precious seconds wasted shaking liquids before serving.
For over 50 years the food industry has been using carageenan in foods and, thankfully, the studies go back just as far. Researchers have time and time again proven carrageenan causes allergies, induces inflammation, and leads to a host of health problems. Yet, this emulsifier is still allowed to be added to foods!
Dangers of carrageenan
Carrageenan is a powerful allergen found to cause anaphylaxis in humans. Researchers actually use carrageenan to produce allergies and inflammation in animals to better study their reactions to pain medication or antihistamines. Because carrageenan is found in baby formulas and other milk products, many people mistake their reaction to carrageenan for a dairy allergy and go on drinking plant-based milk substitutes — which also often contain this allergen as well.
Aside from allergic reactions, carrageenan produces inflammation. It depresses the activity of macrophages (big immune cells that rid the body of worn-out cells and other debris) and induces the creation of histamine, Cox-2, and prostaglandins, all inflammation-inducing compounds.
Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that exposure to both nondegraded and degraded carrageenan was associated with the occurrence of intestinal ulcerations and abnormal tissue masses called neoplasms. Even low concentrations of carrageenan have adverse effects on the intestinal epithelial cells. Epithelial cells line the small intestine creating the impermeable membrane that prevents toxins such as microbes, undigested food, etc. from leaking into the bloodstream.
I don’t necessarily need to repeat what happens when the gut becomes permeable, but I will anyway: toxins leak in to the bloodstream and our immune system responds sending auto-antibodies that trigger attacks against our bodily tissues and nerves. Carrageenan has a long and notable history of significant correlations to different types of cancer, including colon cancer.
How to avoid carrageenan
The easiest way to avoid carrageenan is to read your food labels. The most common place it shows up is in milk products — chocolate milk, plant milks, ice cream, cottage cheese, etc. But carrageenan can also find its way into beer, toothpaste, gummy candies, and shaving cream. So flip over those boxes and see what’s inside. Luckily, if you know to look for it, this additive is easy to spot and easy to avoid!
“Carrageenan poisoning is one known cause of the disappearance of macrophages.” Ray Peat PhD.