Carrageenan: Is It Safe?
There has been a lot of buzz as of late about a little emulsifier known as carrageenan, an additive that originates from red seaweed. It is often used as a thickener in ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, and (oh no!!!) plant milks like almond and soy milk. Some folks are saying that carrageenan can actually cause cancer. Since my and my loved ones’ favorite almond milk contains this tricky ingredient, I had to find out for myself. So does carrageenan cause cancer? Is it safe, or do we need to start avoiding products that contain it?
After looking around, the consensus seems to be to avoid carrageenan to err on the side of safety. There’s the degraded form that is known to be harmful, since many animal studies have shown this form to cause intestinal problems and cancers in mice. However, the degraded form is not used in food production. Even so, people seem to think undegraded carrageenan (the form that IS used in food) has the potential to cause inflammation which can lead to intestinal diseases, cancers, and other bad news bears. As an up-and-coming dietitian, I would advise you to avoid it from now on, if you have healthy alternatives, until more solid research comes out. There isn’t very conclusive evidence about carrageenan. Most studies have been done either in mice or on human cells in a lab, rather than on real human subjects. However, I would still use caution. There are sooooo many products that do not use it (Wegmans brand almond milk and Silk for example do not contain it). Until more research is done, no one can make any solid conclusions. I would say that if you are drinking a healthy product like a plant milk that contains it, it is more beneficial to keep drinking it rather than cutting it out completely. I never even thought to look at carrageenan’s potentially harmful effects since it just comes from red seaweed! Since it has been shown to cause leaky gut (in labs, in some studies…definitely not strong enough evidence) I would overall, use caution! It’s easy enough to buy products without it or make your own. Water + almonds is much better than water + almonds + a bunch of additives ;). One of my vegan friends led me to Virginia Messina, a vegan RD who says, “As far as I know, all of the studies on health effects of carrageenan have been in animals—mostly rats—so I don’t think they tell us too much about effects in humans. It’s very often the case that large amounts of a substance fed to animals produce problems that never occur in humans who are consuming more normal amounts of that substance. So I’m not concerned about health effects of carrageenan, and I do consume products (like soy milk) that contain it.”
So there you have it. There still isn’t very conclusive evidence, but I would say that it is better to be safe eh? Just look for plant milks that don’t use it. A great example is Eden Soy Organic Soy Milk which is literally just soy beans and water, which is just about the best ingredient list you can ask for! I will reiterate again, however, that if you can not find any plant milks or other healthy products that do not contain carrageenan, it is still better to continue to use those products for their many other beneficial effects. I love the way Michael Greger sums up the research from Nutrition Facts. Here’s another blurb from Andrew Weil about carrageenan.