If you spend time reading the labels on products before you buy them, there is a good chance you have seen the Carrageenan food additive show up on the list of ingredients for a wide range of foods. Almond milk, ice cream, yogurt, coffee creamers, and even the unlikeliest of places such as your favorite candy bar.
Prior to my Breast Cancer diagnosis in the fall of 2016, I had been dealing with a plethora of health issues. Brain fog, digestive issues, joint pains, and migraine auras just to name a few.
After much researching, I determined that Gluten could be to blame, so my husband and I did our best to adhere to a gluten-free diet. We swapped our dairy milk for Almond milk, and I made sure to read every label, to make sure the product was free from Gluten and it’s many aliases.
What is Carrageenan
Over the past few years, manufacturers have been making a conscious effort to transition to using more natural ingredients in their products. The long-standing use of Xanthan Gum was slowly being replaced with this new product called Carrageenan.
Manufacturers claimed that Carrageenan was a natural ingredient as it was made from a red seaweed called Chondrus crispus. Or more commonly known as Irish Moss. Having been around since the 1400s, it was mostly used in vegetarian products as an alternative to gelatin. The raw seaweed is most commonly processed through an alkaline procedure, allowing it to be classified as a “natural” ingredient, but if the same seaweed is processed using an acidic solution, it will result in what is called “degraded carrageenan”.
With society becoming ever more health conscious, avoiding processed foods, artificial colors, flavors and other additives, the use of Carrageenan seemed like a win for manufacturers as it was derived from a natural resource.
How is it used in foods
Xanthan Gum had been used for years as a thickening agent and stabilizer in a variety of foods, most common ones found in the dairy aisle, or in your grocer’s ice cream case. It can be found in shelf stable salad dressings, condiments like Worstichere Sauce, Taco sauce, and BBQ sauce. All shelf-stable items which need to maintain a certain look. If a product like BBQ sauce separated into it’s ingredients, like what is commonly found with oil-based salad dressings, you would probably think the product has gone bad, as that is not what we the consumer have grown accustomed to seeing on the store shelves.
The Carrageenan food additive has been replacing Xanthan Gum, as the thickening agent in an ever-growing number of products. Just a trip down the dairy aisle in your local grocery store will provide a list of foods, many you would never give a second thought to purchasing. Products like Almond Milk, Yogurt, Heavy Cream, Half & Half, are just a handful of the items I have personally had to scrutinize the labels on.
A trip down the ice cream aisle is even worse. Popular products like Breyer’s, Hood, Ben & Jerry’s, Klondike Bars, and Dove all contain Carrageenan. We occasionally like to treat ourselves with some ice cream during the summer months, and the ever-growing popularity of this so-called “natural” ingredient, has made finding products that contain it, almost impossible. The only one I can safely buy is the Talenti Gelato.
I have even seen this ingredient show up in the strangest of place, like turkey deli meat, canned soups, packaged broth, TV dinners, and even pet food! It seems like no product is safe from this ingredient, so I have to be a hawk every time I go shopping to make sure I don’t buy a product that contains this ingredient.
Side effects of Carrageenan
You may be wondering how can a food additive that is sourced from a natural product, be bad for you. To be honest, I kind of learned about this the hard way.
If you remember from earlier in this post, I mentioned that I was dealing with a plethora of health issues. One of our first dietary changes was to switch from dairy milk to almond milk. Having had previous experience with the Blue Diamond brand of nuts, we chose their line of Almond milk. Although I was not one for drinking a lot of milk, I did use it in my morning coffee, and it was also an ingredient in certain recipes, like our homemade Mac N Cheese sauce.
After using this product for a while, I started to notice that my symptoms were not necessarily improving. If all else they were getting worse. I dealt with constant digestive issues, was burping all the time, and just felt like general poo. I knew I was not ingesting Gluten, so I started researching the ingredients listed on the products that were newly added to our diet, and that is when I learned about Carrageenan.
In my travels across the internet, way back in 2014, I happened to land upon an article by Dr. Weil, titled “Is Carrageenan Safe?” The article discussed what specifically the Carrageenan food additive was, and mentioned the fact that it held no nutritional value, and was used as a thickener for a wide range of products like I previously mentioned.
What concerned me was where he mentioned that Carrageenan has been used by drug companies to test anti-inflammatory drugs, as Carrageenan has been widely documented to cause inflammation. Studies have shown that mice who received degraded Carrageenan for 18 days straight, ended up developing a serious glucose intolerance, as well as impaired insulin action. Both of these can lead to the development of diabetes.
While studies claim that it is the degraded form of Carrageenan that is used in medical studies, even more, concerning is the Carrageenan side effects associated with the undegraded, or food grade, Carrageenan. While many claim that undegraded Carrageenan is safe, there has been much research to show that acid digestion, bacterial action, heating, and processing can actually accelerate the degradation of the so-called “safe” food grade Carrageenan.
The most common side effects of Carrageenan have been inflammation, bloating, IBS type symptoms, colon cancer, glucose intolerance, and even food allergies. If the inflammation is not treated, it can turn into inflammatory bowel disease, tendonitis, arthritis, and even gallbladder inflammation, otherwise known as chronic cholecystitis.
Was Food Really to Blame?
All this information suddenly caused alarm bells to start going off in my head. Our attempts to improve our diet inadvertently ended up doing more harm than good because of an ingredient we knew nothing about at the time of purchase. We all assume that the natural and organic products we find at our local grocery store only have our best interests in mind, but in reality, companies tend to put profits first over consumer health.
We immediately switched from the Blue Diamond Almond Milk to Silk Almond Milk and my symptoms started to improve. This meant that I needed to read the labels on every single product we purchased. I maintained a Gluten Free diet until after my mastectomy surgery in February 2017. Having been on a large dose of antibiotics post-op, I was able to go back to eating normal foods again. No more Gluten Free diet for me.
I still do not know the exact cause of all the symptoms I suffered, but I am doing my best to avoid going down that path again. Over the past four years, from when I first learned about Carrageenan, this so-called “natural” food additive, is showing up in more and more products, as manufacturers believe the hype. That it is a natural, and “healthier” alternative to Xanthan Gum.
At the start of the summer, I had purchased some Ben & Jerry’s Pint Slices. The Americone Dream and Vanilla Peanut Butter Cup were two of our favorites. Yet, the following morning after I indulged in one of these treats, I found myself feeling just off. Muscle aches, minor brain fog, and digestive distress. I never thought, or should I say turned a blind eye, to read the ingredients. Then on one of my weekly shopping trips, I learned the truth. Our favorite sweet treat contained the very ingredient I was trying so hard to avoid.
I searched the freezer section for a replacement. Old favorites like the Hood Ice Cream Sandwich and Klondike bars were both no-gos, as they too contained this ingredient. As time passes, it seems like nothing is safe from the Carrageenan food additive. Popular salad dressing brands have it, so the only way to avoid it is to read the ingredients of every single product you purchase. Particularly if you have already been diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, as consumption of products that contain Carrageenan can potentially exacerbate the symptoms you are already dealing with.
Not convinced that Carrageenan may be to blame? Take a look in your refrigerator, or pantry and see how many of the products that you regularly consume contain the Carrageenan food additive. Eliminate those products from your diet for a week, and see if your symptoms improve. You may just be surprised at how much better you feel, and you too will do your best to avoid Carrageenan like the plague. Your body will thank you for it!
Till Next Time!