Carrageenan is an additive used to thicken, emulsify, and preserve foods and drinks. It’s a natural ingredient that comes from red seaweed (also called Irish moss). You’ll often find this ingredient in nut milks, meat products, and yogurt.
Since the late 1960s, there’s been controversy surrounding the health effects of carrageenan. Some evidence suggests that carrageenan triggers inflammation, gastrointestinal ulcerations, and that it damages your digestive system. People have been petitioning for products with carrageenan to be labeled with a warning or removed entirely. Read on to learn more about this common food additive and why you may want to avoid it.
Products with carrageenan may be labeled as “natural,” but limited studies show that carrageenan may promote or cause:
Increased inflammation can lead to a greater likelihood of other diseases, such as:
One review also suggests that there may be no substantial difference between “food-grade” (undegraded) and degraded carrageenan. Degraded carrageenan is a carcinogenic (cancer-causing) version that isn’t approved. It’s even used to induce inflammation in animal studies. According to Cornucopia, test results of food-grade carrageenan carried at least 5 percent degraded carrageenan. One sample had about 25 percent.
But many of the studies conducted on the dangers of carrageenan were on animals and cells. Reports of bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, and other digestive issues are mostly self-reported. People also report relief when they drop carrageenan from their diet.
There need to be more human studies to confirm any link between carrageenan and digestive problems. In the meantime, you may want to limit how much carrageenan you consume.
The Food and Drug Administration still approves this ingredient. But in 2016, the National Organic Standards Board voted to remove carrageenan from their approved list. This means foods made with carrageenan can no longer be labeled “USDA organic.”
Carrageenan tends to be in vegan and vegetarian products. Since it’s a plant, manufacturers use it to replace gelatin, which is made from animal parts.
Common sources of carrageenan
- chocolate milk
- cottage cheese
- ice cream
- almond milk
- diary alternatives, such as vegan cheeses or nondairy desserts
- coconut milk
- hemp milk
- rice milk
- soy milk
- deli meats
Carrageenan has no nutritional value, so you don’t have to worry about missing anything when you remove foods containing it. Finding replacements for vegetarian or vegan foods without carrageenan is possible. Just remember that carrageenan-free milks may separate. This is natural. All you have to do is shake well before pouring.
To see which brands are carrageenan-free, take a look at Cornucopia’s shopping guide. Carrageenan is also found in pet foods, especially canned ones. Choose a brand that does not contain this additive.
If you’re worried about the side effects of carrageenan, take it out of your diet and see if there’s any improvement in how you’re feeling. It’s legally required to be listed under a product’s ingredients, so it should be easy to start to figure out what foods to eliminate.
Talk to a doctor if you continue to experience inflammation or digestive issues after removing carrageenan. This may signal that carrageenan isn’t responsible for your symptoms.