If you’ve heard of carrageenan, you’ve likely heart some nasty horror stories of inflammation and potential cancer-causing properties. That reputation is enough to scare plenty of people away from this food additive, but is there any truth to these claims? Is carrageenan harmful? Here’s everything you need to know about carrageenan.
What Is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is a natural fiber extracted from red seaweed that’s often used as a thickening or gelling agent. When it comes to looking at research, it’s important to note that carrageenan is sometimes referred to as “undegraded carrageenan” – and you guessed it, there’s also a “degraded carrageenan.” Undegraded carrageenan is approved as a food additive by the FDA and more frequently goes by just “carrageenan,” but once it’s been degraded, it’s then referred to as “poligeenan” – a substance you won’t find anywhere near your food.
Poligeenan is used in medical imaging applications and is a known carcinogen listed in the FDA’s Poisonous Plants Database. It’s created by heating carrageenan to at least 190 degrees Fahrenheit and adjusting the acidity to a similar pH of car batteries (1.0). Compare that to the level of heat or acidity in your body – an average of 98.6 degrees and pH of 2.0 to 3.5 – and it becomes clear that you will never make carcinogenic poligeenan out of the carrageenan found in foods (as is sometimes claimed).
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Where is Carrageenan Found?
Now that we know that we’re talking about carrageenan, not poligeenan, let’s get into where this controversial food additive is found. You’ve probably seen it in the ingredients list on a box of almond milk or other plant-based milks, where it’s used to keep everything smooth and prevents the other ingredients from separating. You might also find it in some yogurts, coffee creamers, infant formula, ice creams, and other dairy/dairy-like products as an emulsifier. It’s also used to thicken the mouthfeel of low fat products. Mmm… who doesn’t love that artificial oily feeling on your tongue!
Does Carrageenan Cause Inflammation?
The most common critique of the use of carrageenan in food is the claim that it causes inflammation in the gut, which can lead to or worsen symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, or simply contribute to chronic inflammation.
There is some research supporting this claim in animal models and in human intestinal and colonic cells. While that seems pretty legitimate, keep this in mind: The rat models used in most carrageenan research are fed concentrations of carrageenan that far exceed what humans would get from drinking, say, a cup of almond milk a day. In addition, the carrageenan is usually administered with water. When carrageenan is dissolved in water, it isn’t bound to any proteins and is essentially free to interact with other molecules. Most humans will likely never consume high concentrations of carrageenan dissolved into pure water – so those findings on rats aren’t very applicable to our bodies.
Research finding inflammation in human cells is concerning, though, right? Well let’s keep in mind that there are no research studies looking at inflammatory effects of consuming low concentrations of carrageenan from food (not just dissolved in water) in real, live humans. In other words, no one is researching carrageenan’s effects in the way that we actually consume it. Applying isolated carrageenan to isolated intestinal cells in petri dishes doesn’t necessarily strike a strong resemblance to how our bodies work, so I’d like to see some practical research before recommending you avoid carrageenan.
There’s also plenty of research that’s found absolutely no inflammatory effect of carrageenan on human intestinal cells – even when applied directly to cells in a petri dish – and no adverse effects of carrageenan in rats.
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All in all, the research on carrageenan and inflammation is pretty cloudy. Even in isolated situations and exaggerated rat models, the verdict is unclear. Keep in mind that when we consume carrageenan, it’s not in isolation and it’s not often in high concentrations. Since inflammation can be caused by so many lifestyle and eating habits, I’d say carrageenan is a far cry from being our most pressing inflammatory issue.
Does Carrageenan Cause Cancer?
Critics of carrageenan in food are quick to point out that carrageenan is a known carcinogen. As we discussed earlier, poligeenan is in fact a known carcinogen, but it’s also not found in foods. So what about food-grade carrageenan?
There’s some research on animals pointing to food-grade carrageenan as a “co-carcinogen,” meaning that it doesn’t cause cancer on it’s own, but it does enhance the effects of other known carcinogens. The research on carrageenan and cancer in human cells is lacking, but it’s important to note that ulcerative colitis (a result of inflammation) poses a risk for colorectal cancer, so research finding a link between carrageenan and inflammation could suggest a link between carrageenan and cancer.
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However, just like with the research regarding inflammation, let’s take animal and isolated human cell studies with a grain of salt. There are numerous studies demonstrating no carcinogenic effects of carrageenan – even in animal models treated with high doses of carrageenan for their entire lifespan.
Should You Avoid Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is infamous for being an inflammatory, carcinogenic food additive – but the research simply isn’t conclusive. As long as your diet doesn’t consist solely of foods with high amounts of carrageenan, I’d say you’re probably in the clear.
That being said, I certainly wouldn’t seek out foods that have carrageenan in them. Although there’s some research supporting the cholesterol and lipid-lowering effects of carrageenan, you’ll get those benefits from any other fiber source (like fruits, veggies, and whole grains) and carrageenan doesn’t have any other redeeming nutritional value. Stick to whole and minimally processed foods and you likely won’t run into much carrageenan. If you do find it on the ingredients list of some foods you’re eating once in awhile, I’d say don’t sweat it.
What foods have you found carrageenan in? Do you try to avoid it?