Although I was aware of health concerns regarding this food additive, I needed to read up on the topic before I responded to her concerns. In the course of my research, here are the important facts I learned:
1. Carrageenan, which is extracted from red seaweed, is often used to thicken nonfat or low-fat foods and dairy replacements. It can also stabilize beverages that may otherwise separate, like chocolate milk. It's even added to meats like deli meats and chicken as a binder, and can be found in processed foods like frozen pizzas and food bars.
2. This "natural" food ingredient can be transformed into what's called poligeenan, or "degraded" carrageenan. This is a potent inflammatory agent - in fact, it's been used in experiments to create inflammation to test new therapies. And the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists degraded carrageenan as a possible carcinogen.
3. Degraded carrageenan can be found in food products, and is supposed to be kept at less than 5% of the total. But it's been reported that up to 25% of carrageenan in foods may be degraded - although the industry producing it has taken exception with this.
4. Scientific studies have raised concerns about the additive for years. A 2001 report reviewed the literature on the harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animals and found higher rates of lesions, ulcerations and malignant tumors.
5. In human intestinal cells, lab studies have shown how carrageenan induces inflammation.
6. In animal studies, carrageenan was found to lead to elevated blood sugars and lipid levels, even with no weight gain.
7. Still, there are insufficient case studies of humans to conclude whether carrageenan is causing clinical disease.
Why I'm Avoiding Carrageenan
So what did I tell my patient? I told her that the issue of the safety of carrageenan has not been resolved, but that there's reason to be concerned.
In fact, one of the leading researchers in the field, Dr. Joanne Tobacman, has concluded that "carrageenan exposure clearly causes inflammation; the amount of carrageenan in food products is sufficient to cause inflammation; and degraded carrageenan and food-grade carrageenan are both harmful."
In my opinion, the majority of frozen pizzas, ice cream, and prepared chicken aren't healthy choices and should be avoided anyway, whether they contain carrageenan or not.
But what about almond milk? For my family, I have decided to purchase products that are free of carrageenan in order to avoid even a remote chance that they're pro-inflammatory and raise blood sugar.
If you'd like to learn more, The Cornucopia Institute, an organization dedicated to researching food issues, has an extensive review of the scientific studies on the safety of carrageenan and a list of products that contain it as an additive.