Carrageenan - Is this additive hiding in your dairy alternatives and is it dangerous?
By Doralise Halepis, Nutrition Student
Seeing the word ‘carrageenan’ written in the ingredients of a product, it’s easy to assume that it is yet another chemical food additive manufacturers are using to increase product shelf life. Surprisingly, a carrageenan is actually a natural product, derived from seaweed and used in dairy/dairy-alternative products as a gel/thickener. Much concern has been raised about this natural additive as some believe it to have detrimental effects to the body, but if it’s cleared to be present in organic products, surely it must be safe?
The latest health news stipulates that carrageenan is a carcinogen (cancer causer), and causes digestive issues, such as inflammation. Studies have tested this theory on animals, using degraded carrageenan, and found that the carrageenan reacted differently in each animal, so effectively the results can’t be applied to humans yet. It is unlikely that humans are exposed to degraded carrageenan, as this type only would present itself if food grade carrageenan has been incorrectly manufactured, or the carrageenan hadn’t been extracted under correct conditions. The European Scientific Committee on Food, one of the world's most respected food authorities, states "there is no evidence of any adverse effects in humans from exposure to food-grade carrageenan, or that exposure to degraded carrageenan (the problematic type) from use of food-grade carrageenan is occurring".
Before an additive, natural or not, is allowed to be used in food products, it must adhere to strict government regulated guidelines. These guidelines are in place to ensure harmful substances do not enter our bodies, and that all additives are present in a safe level for human consumption. As carrageenan is allowed to be present in minimal amounts, it seems to suggest that as long as you’re not drinking copious amounts of soy milk and other similar products, and you do not suffer from IBS, or a digestive disorder, you’re digestive system will be free from harm. Having said that, it is highly recommended that infants avoid carrageenan containing products, as carrageenan may be absorbed in the immature gut, potentially leading to immune problems.
If you are worried about consuming carrageenan, or believe it to be causing side effects on your body, check the ingredient list on all non-dairy milks, chesses, yoghurts and other commercial products. Sometimes it is a simple matter of rotating carrageenan and non-carrageenan containing products in your diet to avoid a build-up effect, rather than completely cutting them out. If you are having difficulty finding products that do not contain carrageenan, there are some great recipes online on how to make your own yoghurts, plant based milks etc.
Without human trials, it is impossible to know whether or not carrageenan is harmful to the human body. If you believe carrageenan may be adversely affecting your body, do seek medical advice, otherwise there is no reason to suggest complete elimination from the diet.
A side note from Larina:
If you're keen to avoid the ingredient, these are a few of the milk alternatives that don't contain carrageenan, though I have not looked at their nutritional values to comment on whether they're beneficial to consume or not:
- Freedom foods quinoa milk with chia
- Pure Harvest organic almond milk in original
- Vitasoy protein enriched rice milk
- So Good low fat 'chocolate bliss' soy milk
- So Good 99.9% fat free soy milk
- Australia's Own Organic Almond milk