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Carrageenan is a popular stabilizing agent that can be found in a wide variety of foods and products. It’s especially prevalent in vegan foods since it’s plant-based, unlike some of its close alternatives.
However, there’s plenty of controversy surrounding the use of carrageenan. Scientists and health professionals on both sides are at odds over how carrageenan can affect your body when ingested, which begs the question: is carrageenan safe?
Here’s everything you need to know about carrageenan: what it is, how it’s used, and whether or not carrageenan is actually safe to consume.
What Is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is an extract that comes from red seaweed, otherwise known as Irish moss.
It is most commonly used as a food additive to stabilize and emulsify certain foods and products. It’s also used as a gelling and thickening agent, acting similarly to gelatin. In other words, carrageenan is used to change the texture and mouthfeel of various foods.
Because it is made from seaweed, carrageenan is vegan-friendly and suitable for most plant-based diets.
However, this does not mean that carrageenan is without its controversy. In fact, many vegans and other health-conscious eaters actively choose to avoid carrageenan because of the controversy surrounding its potential health-adverse side effects.
Is Carrageenan Safe?
The safety of carrageenan is a hotly debated topic, with scientists and lobbyists on both sides of the issue disagreeing on whether or not carrageenan can present potentially dangerous health effects when ingested.
To understand whether or not carrageenan is safe, it’s helpful to understand the concept of inflammation. Inflammation is how your immune system responds to potentially dangerous foreign pathogens and invaders. Under normal circumstances, acute inflammation is necessary for keeping your body healthy and safe from disease and injury. But when it comes to chronic inflammation, where your body is constantly on the attack, it could cause your body to attack its own tissues, leading to a world of health problems down the line.
This potential inflammatory response is the basis behind the carrageenan controversy, and scientists disagree on whether or not the carrageenan used in foods can lead to health complications.
There are actually two different kinds of carrageenan: food-safe carrageenan and degraded carrageenan.
Degraded carrageenan, also known as poligeenan, is created when carrageenan extracted from red seaweed is processed through harsh chemical reactions in a lab or commercial production plants. This form of carrageenan is a known carcinogen and has even been used in research to induce inflammation in animal test subjects. It also has a different chemical structure than food-grade carrageenan and isn’t effective for stabilizing or gelling, so it is not approved for use in food products.
So degraded carrageenan is not safe to consume. But food-safe carrageenan, which is the form of carrageenan you find in your food products, might not be as safe as some proponents would have you believe either.
Several studies have concluded that food-safe carrageenan can still induce inflammation:
Several studies have shown that carrageenan can induce inflammation in animals studies. While it’s unethical to conduct similar experiments on humans, researchers were concerned about these results because inflammation in the human gut can lead to serious conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and Crohn’s disease.
Another review of several carrageenan studies concluded that carrageenan in food products was associated with ulcerations. The researcher here concluded that this could be due to contamination by degraded carrageenan. However, they also theorized that the carrageenan could become degraded from the stomach acids involved in metabolizing foods or from interaction with certain bacteria in the gut.
Some reported side effects of carrageenan include bloating, upset stomachs, and diarrhea. But even more concerning is how inflammation can affect your body when it’s chronic, with consequences potentially ranging from irritable bowel syndrome to inflammatory bowel disease. Luckily, many people who reported these side effects found that their symptoms improved upon eliminating carrageenan in their diet.
Ultimately, more research needs to be done to draw a definitive conclusion on whether or not carrageenan is safe to consume.
Uses Of Carrageenan
Because carrageenan is a popular emulsifying and stabilizing agent that also acts as a vegan alternative to gelatin, it can be found in a variety of foods and other products.
Food-safe carrageenan can be found in desserts, dairy products like yogurts and ice cream, syrups, sauces, and coffee creamers. They’re an especially popular ingredient in many vegan foods, like plant milks, since it’s a plant-based alternative for stabilizing foods and changing textures. You can even find carrageenan in certain pet foods.
It’s also used in pharmaceuticals. Some drugs and supplements use carrageenan as an encapsulating ingredient to encourage the controlled release of the active ingredients inside. Unfortunately, this can present some problems, especially if you’re taking medication and supplements to fight inflammation.
Some people even use carrageenan to treat coughs and colds, though this isn’t supported by science.
So the safety of carrageenan is debatable, but the potential long-term effects of chronic inflammation are often too much for many people to want to risk. But because it’s such a popular additive in many vegan foods and supplements, carrageenan can be hard to avoid.
The presence of carrageenan becomes an especially difficult problem when you’re trying to find an anti-inflammatory supplement that is also vegan-friendly.
For example, omega-3 pills are popular supplements that are thought to help reduce inflammation in the body*. These potential benefits may also help support heart and brain health*. While fish oil is the most widely recognized omega-3 supplement, there are also plenty of vegan, fish-free alternatives. But many of them still use carrageenan as part of the capsule, adding potential risk to your daily supplement routine.
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