Carrageenan is an extract (a group of sulfated galactans) that is derived from a red seaweed called- Irish Moss. This edible seaweed has been used in cooking since ancient times due to its special chemical structure. It is commonly used in the food industry as a thickener, binder, and emulsifier. In the pharmaceutical industry, Carrageenan has also been used as a laxative and to treat peptic ulcers. It is hugely preferred by vegans as a “no-fat, low-fat ingredient” since it is a plant-based product, unlike gelatin that is made of animal products.
It is commonly found in-
● Ice creams
● Coffee creamers
● Paneer (cottage cheese)
● Non-dairy milk
● Baby formula
It's often used in drinks that would need to be shaken or stirred after they are put on shelves. For example- Chocolate milk, shakes, almond, coconut milk, etc.
It may also be found in prepackaged pizza crusts to maintain a soft and doughy texture.
Is carrgeen harmful or not?
Well, this depends on its kind. There are two types of carrageenan- Degraded (poligeenan) and un-degraded (food grade).
The seaweed is treated in an acidic solution so that its un-degraded correlative goes through an alkaline procedure (to reduce its molecular weight), and transforms into edible food-grade carrageenan, which is considered safe as well natural by food manufacturers.
Controversies around Carrageenan…
A lot of controversies have been erupting around this natural plant-based ingredient. According to sources, degraded carrageen has been associated with harmful effects in animals. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration stood against the use of edible carrageenan in 1972, but the proceedings were never taken ahead.
Many esteemed scientists have sketched the reasons that these claims are misleading and have concluded that dietary carrageenan when processed has no harmful effects, and there is no valid reason to ban it.
Possible harmful effects
This thickening agent is blamed to be extremely inflammatory and lethal to the digestive tract and is also said to be responsible for conditions like ulcerative colitis & rheumatoid arthritis. (As per studies conducted on animals)
Research states that “Carrageenan and CMC may trigger or magnify an inflammatory response in the human intestine but are unlikely to be identified as the sole environmental factor involved in the development of IBD (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) or in disease recurrence after treatment.”
Another study cites that both poligeenan and edible carrageenan are hazardous. It stimulates the progress of colonic tumors, and liver cancers.
Carrageenan additive in food may lead to hormonal imbalances and trigger sugar levels. Not only does it affect animals but also impairs glucose tolerance, increases insulin resistance, and hinders insulin movement in human HepG2 cells.
Are there any alternatives to carrageenan?
You can replace carrageenan with Agar Agar powder. It is a suitable alternative that has gelling abilities because of its high soluble fiber content. Healthy substitutes would include- Gum arabic, xanthan gum, and guar gum. But they’ll not bind the beverage as carrageenan does. One will have to shake the beverage vigorously before use.
Xanthan gum constitutes glucose, glucuronic acid, and mannose. Xanthan gum recipes are perfect for individuals who are sensitive to gluten, soy, egg, or dairy-based products but they should not be used by people who are hypersensitive to corn as they may develop allergies.
Guar gum (basically guar bean powder) is frequently used in baking, meat items, frozen foods, pastes, and salad dressings.
Gum arabic is a natural food preservative, which is derived from the species of the acacia tree. It is colorless, odorless and it is also used in various things apart from food like inks, paints, glues, and textiles.
Carrageenan is more concerning than other additives that are included in the food. People who follow slimming recipes that contain carrageenan need to be extra cautious about their health, especially if there is a history of digestive problems. If you are having carrageenan a few times, there is nothing to worry about. However, it will be best to avoid not just carrageenan but any eatable that has disputed adverse effects. You can simply do so by making nut milk or coconut milk at home, on your own.
If you are someone who consumes carrageenan-based foods and is tensed about their side effects, try excluding them from your diet. See, if it makes a healthy difference. If you experienced any symptoms like stomach ache or gastric issues earlier, and if you get relief after removing it, you should probably stick to a carrageenan-free diet. Please see a doctor in case these symptoms get worse and prevent any major harm.