Carrageenan is a food additive extracted from a type of red, edible seaweed called Chondrus crispus, also known as Irish moss. It is common in many foods (mostly vegan and vegetarian foods) – even the ones claimed to be organic – like yogurt and almond milk. Manufacturers add it to food products to make them thick and stabilize them, giving the food a longer shelf life and better texture.
Although this additive has been tested extensively on animals and been found to affect them negatively, more studies need to be conducted to confirm similar effects in humans. In many cases, people have been found to experience relief after eliminating carrageenan from their diet.
To better understand to what extent carrageenan could be harmful to humans, it’s a good idea to know its side effects.
4 Reasons Why Carrageenan May Not Be Good For You
1. It Could Cause Inflammation
While inflammation is your body’s way of healing itself when you’re sick, chronic inflammation is a bad thing because it could eventually result in a chronic disease. Carrageenan intake has been found to increase the production of cells called inflammatory cytokines, which promote inflammation – possibly making it chronic.1
However, only taking it intravenously is likely to negatively affect the immune system; when consumed as a food additive, the inflammatory effects are not significant.
2. It Could Accelerate Cancer Progress
Undegraded carrageenan is not processed in an acidic solution like its degraded counterpart and is considered safe for consumption. However, despite this, it has been found to promote the growth of cancer cells when administered in amounts as high as 15% in the diet.2 This has been proved to be true only in animals, so more studies need to be conducted to substantiate the findings for humans.
Research also shows that carrageenan increases the production of an enzyme called thymidine kinase, which in abnormal levels functions as a marker and indicates the development of colon cancer.3
However, carrageenan is more likely to enhance the progress of cancer only when it is consumed in high amounts.
3. It May Result In Insulin Resistance
Carrageenan in food has been found to result in an increase in the amount of glucose and hence the hormone insulin in mice.4
An increase in glucose levels is bound to be followed by an increase in the amount of insulin; this is because insulin is needed to regulate glucose levels in your body. However, if there is too much insulin, your body becomes resistant to it. This makes it ineffective in glucose regulation, resulting in the build-up of excess glucose and eventually glucose intolerance.
More research is required to confirm the role carrageenan plays in contributing to insulin resistance and if the findings stand true for humans.
4. It May Affect Your Digestive Tract
Any diet with 5% carrageenan has been found to cause intestinal ulcers in a number of animals.5 This food additive can also result in the abnormal growth of tube-like glands in the colon.6 These glands are called aberrant crypt foci and are among the earliest indicators of colon cancer. However, studies for this have been conducted so far only with rats as subjects. Further research is required to confirm the findings in humans.
Also, relatively lower amounts of this food additive in your diet – below 5% of the diet – is unlikely to have negative effects on your digestive tract.
Should You Avoid Carrageenan?
There have been a lot of attempts to get the use of carrageenan in foods banned because of its potential health risks. However, despite continued controversy, this food additive has been given the generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status.
According to current research, if your diet contains less than 5% of this food additive, you’re unlikely to experience significant side effects. However, if you want to be on the safe side, eliminate foods that contain carrageenan from your diet. Because the additive has no nutritional value, you’re not missing out any essential nutrients by stopping its use. Once you remove it from your diet, observe how you feel.
If you continue to experience digestive discomfort or inflammation, consult your doctor to rule out serious issues.
|↑1||Bhattacharyya, Sumit, Pradeep K. Dudeja, and Joanne K. Tobacman. “Tumor necrosis factor α-induced inflammation is increased but apoptosis is inhibited by common food additive carrageenan.” Journal of Biological Chemistry 285, no. 50 (2010): 39511-39522.|
|↑2||Tobacman, Joanne K. “Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments.” Environmental health perspectives 109, no. 10 (2001): 983.|
|↑3||Calvert, Richard J., and Marla Reicks. “Alterations in colonic thymidine kinase enzyme activity induced by consumption of various dietary fibers.” Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine 189, no. 1 (1988): 45-51.|
|↑4||Bhattacharyya, S. I. O. S., I. O-sullivan, S. Katyal, T. Unterman, and J. K. Tobacman. “Exposure to the common food additive carrageenan leads to glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and inhibition of insulin signalling in HepG2 cells and C57BL/6J mice.” Diabetologia 55, no. 1 (2012): 194-203.|
|↑5||Watt, Jo, and R. Marcus. “Carrageenan-induced ulceration of the large intestine in the guinea pig.” Gut 12, no. 2 (1971): 164-171.|
|↑6||Watanabe, Kenshi, Bandaru S. Reddy, Ching Q. Wong, and John H. Weisburger. “Effect of dietary undegraded carrageenan on colon carcinogenesis in F344 rats treated with azoxymethane or methylnitrosourea.” Cancer Research 38, no. 12 (1978): 4427-4430.|