As a dietitian who helps people craft more plant-centred diets and works to improve digestive health, sometimes there are instances where the two goals can seem counter to one another. Carrageenan is one of those instances.
You see, if you want – or need – to avoid dairy, you will be looking for plant-based alternatives. In order to suspend plant cells – which are by their nature, roughage – in a liquid medium and make them creamy and smooth, you need some help. So, unless you’re okay with shaking up your almond milk like crazy or whipping your gloopy-looking coconut yogurt into a frenzy pre-meal, you need stabilizing gums. And carrageenan has been the most popular of them all…until the backlash hit.
What exactly is the source of the backlash? Well, if you Google it (rabbit hole alert: don’t do it), you will read that carrageenan is causing inflammation in the gut and can lead to colon cancer and ulcerative colitis. Opponents have plenty of research studies to throw at the fire – so, what’s a health conscious foodie to do?
Take a deep dive and sort out the nutrition facts from the gross exaggerations.
What is carrageenan, exactly?
Carrageenan is an indigestible polysaccharide – which means a carbohydrate chain that your digestive system can’t break down – that is derived from red seaweeds like Irish Moss. If that already sounds scary, consider that one of the reasons why fibre is so awesome for us is that it is also an indigestible carbohydrate.
Health Canada has approved carrageenan for use as a thickener and stabilizer in everything from salad dressing to sour cream to stout.
The first, most important thing to note is that there are two different carrageenan compounds, un-degraded (which is approved for use in food) and degraded (also called poligeenan, which is not approved for use in food). If you are into the chemistry, you can gain a bit more insight into how carrageenan is isolated from seaweed here.
Does carrageenan mess with your gut?
Most of the research on carrageenan isn’t actually about the health effects of food-grade carrageenan. Poligeenan has been used in thousands of studies to induce inflammation so pharmaceutical companies can test their anti-inflammatory drugs. You need to dismiss that research right off the bat. It has nothing to do with eating food-grade carrageenan.
For the applicable research, much of it was done in a test tube or in animals – so as much as your instinct wants to, you can’t say that it will affect humans in the same way. You need to remember that, because the research has had some intriguing and worrisome – although not conclusive – results.
Here is the Coles Notes version:
- Most of the research connecting potential issues to carrageenan has studied poligeenan – the kind banned from use in food. Poligeenan appears to damage the gut cells (in the lab – not in real people) and spark an inflammatory response that can lead the gut barrier to falter. It has also been shown to damage the cell cycle, encouraging the growth of cancerous cells in the gut.
- Food grade carrageenan has been found in a few studies to increase inflammation in the gut cell, and create an increase in diarrhea in animal models. It could also hasten the development of cancerous cells exposed to a carcinogen…but isn’t carcinogenic on its own. It appears that the affect can occur when carrageenan is as little as 0.5% of the fluid or food offered…which is not a lot but it’s more than most of us consume. None of these studies look at the real effect of consuming foods that have 1.0% carrageenan or less in the context of our everyday diets. Our total dietary intake is less than 1.0% carrageenan. We consume roughly 250mg of carrageenan per day – so what is the real world effect??
- Additional concerns stem from the ability of our bodies to degrade carrageenan. It is thought that digestion in the stomach may partially degrade carrageenan to the point where it can be taken up by the gut cell, cause damage and incite an inflammatory immune response. Lab experiments aimed at approximating digestion were able to degrade carrageenan. However, in the lab, temperatures of 80 degrees Celsius are required for the transformation…and our body temp comes in at less than half of that. Degradation into poligeenan, if it occurs, is only partial so we are talking about ingesting miniscule amounts. There is some additional concern than food grade carrageenan may unwittingly include poligeenan, but the total amount of poligeenan exposure in our diets is unclear.
- Another concern is the amount of sulfate in carrageenan. Lab studies suggest that another way carrageenan may be causing damage is due to the sulfate levels affecting cellular metabolism in the gut cell and causing oxidative damage.
Bottom line: should you avoid carrageenan?
This all sounds kind of horrible, right? Well, while I would not dismiss the potential for carrageenan to cause damage…I don’t know that I can safely conclude the real impact of carrageenan in our everyday diet.
Look at it this way: if you eat a lot of foods that contain carrageenan, you are eating a lot of hyper-processed foods. So, in addition to the carrageenan, it is possible that you are consuming a diet that lacks whole plant foods – and the fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals they contain – which is critical to supporting a healthy gut and intestinal flora and minimizing the risk of chronic inflammation. So, which is the chicken and which is the egg?
If you sprinkled 250mg of carrageenan onto a whole food, high plant diet – would it hurt your gut? My gut feeling (lame pun!) is that carrageenan is one small moderating factor and that if you get the macros right – managing stress, eating lots of whole plant foods – that a bit of carrageenan won’t bother you.
A glass of soymilk or spoonful of fat free sour cream isn’t going to give you ulcerative colitis. And while there is very intriguing research on the potential effects, they are inconsistent.
Now, what about those who are struggling with digestive issues or chronic inflammation? This is when I think that carrageenan should become a consideration. But you have to start with the most important foundation: nourishing your body well with whole foods.
If you eat a diet filled with hyper-processed and packaged foods (which also probably contain a bunch of stabilizers), it’s time to un-junk your diet and move to a more whole, plant-centred approach. You’ll feed your gut with plenty of fibre, critical repair nutrients such as zinc and anti-inflammatory phyto-chemicals.
If you have already done the work to clean up your diet, without improvement, this is when you start looking to the smaller players…and perhaps looking at the amount of stabilizers in your diet is a good idea. If a lot of the food you eat contains carrageenan, it is worth a shot.
Ways you can avoid carrageenan:
- Stop buying low fat dairy. And cheap ‘frozen desserts’. The fat is usually replaced with stabilizers and low fat dairy may not be a healthier choice than full fat dairy. Of course, I recommend you eat less dairy overall as part of an anti-inflammatory diet but when you do eat it, go for the real deal.
- But what about my almond/oat/soy milk? Two options here: Make your own (and make sure you get your calcium from some place else!) or look for a product that is carrageenan free. They exist.
- Eat whole. The more you eat whole foods, the less you have to worry. You will be consuming less stabilizers and loading up on anti-inflammatory, gut health promoting foods. You’ll also save money (bonus!). So, make your own salad dressing with a bit of lemon and olive oil. Make chia or avocado puddings instead of buying things in tubs and watch out for frozen dinners if you are pressed for time.
A HUGE thank you to my students Britney Lentz and Naomi Oh, who helped me summarize the research on this topic.