Read a few random ingredient lists and it's easy to conclude that real food's been body-snatched and replaced by an array of fakers and fillers. Carrageenan is one such additive found in a wide assortment of grocery goodies - including the organic kind. It is in fact "naturally derived," but does that mean it's safe and sustainable?
Carrageenan is a red-alga-derived thickener/binder used in all sorts of food products. It's huge in dairy (ice cream, sour cream, ricotta, creamers), massive in low-fat foods (oil-free dressings, yogurt), big in deli meats and fake deli meats and absolutely all over health-store products (check your milk made from soy, rice, hemp, flax or coconut).
With more and more people creeped out by the presence of gelatin (especially in a post-mad-cow world), Big Food found a vegan alternative - carrageenan - that would raise no red flags. Look at all the positives: it's a water-soluble fibre; it's been used in one form or another for centuries (the Irish boiled up Irish moss, or "carraig'n," for milk pudding); and it can be farmed and grown in ocean beds without added fertilizers. No wonder some have branded it a natural gift from the sea.
But if carrageenan's a gift, it may be of the Trojan variety. Look closely and you'll find a paper trail of disconcerting research suggesting that it may be damaging to the gut.
One physician-scientist at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Joanne Tobacman, has, over the last two decades, published 18 peer-reviewed papers on the biological effects of the stuff. Her conclusions are that carrageenan causes inflammation and that it can do so at the levels consumed in the human diet.
If you ask for a response from the crunchy granola food companies that use this stuff in their yogurt or the federal regulators who okay its use, they'll tell you it's only "degraded" carrageenan that's a problem - the kind that isn't used as a food additive. Certainly, degraded carrageenan has been recognized by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible human carcinogen. Not so for the un-degraded carrageenan used in ice cream and soy milk.
Some, like Stoneyfield, acknowledge industry-funded research that found that, yes, food-grade carrageenan can break down into the bad kind in food, but only, they contend, in trace levels that don't cause harm in humans.
For her part, Tobacman maintains that both forms of carrageenan cause inflammation (especially bad for inflammatory bowel conditions) and possibly colon cancer in lab animals. She, along with the Cornucopia Institute in the U.S., petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Standards Board back in April to have carrageenan banned from organic foods. The board voted 10-5 to keep it on the green list of approved non-organic ingredients, prompting bystanders to suggest that Big Food's takeover of organic brands is tipping the scales in favour of more lenient organic standards.
Carrageenan has ruffled feathers on the sustainability front as well. It turns out the global push to have red algae farmed and processed hasn't always worked out as planned. The inedible crop has been found invading and killing entire colonies of coral reef from Hawaii to south India at a time when the world's reefs are already under grave threat.
The industry argues that carrageenan can be farmed sustainably when kept away from coral reefs and sea grass, but how far is far enough? And who takes responsibility when the algae spread out of bounds?
The whole scene leaves me a little dazed and confused, especially when I comb through my cupboards and find carrageenan in my coconut milk, almond milk, toothpaste and beyond. I just checked my local health store to find, with a heavy heart, that only Hemp Bliss, Yü Rice Milk and Edensoy are entirely free of carrageenan. (Eden actually axed its carrageenan-containing EdenBlends and became an anti-carrageenan activist.)
Other brands you have to take on a product-by-product basis, like Pacific Foods, Westsoy, Rice Dream/Soy Dream/Almond Dream and Natura.
The Cornucopia Institute has put out a shopping guide to avoiding carrageenan. It's heavy on U.S. brands but still helpful for Canadians (cornucopia.org). Otherwise, you'll have to do your own label scan and make up your own mind about whether your body wants you stay away from yet another inflammatory food. Could be elimination diet time.
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