Carrageenan: What IS That?

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In my blog post 5 Ingredients You Want to Avoid in 2014, I shared some important information you and your family need to know about. The last ingredient on this list was carrageenan and below you will find out why it is one you want to avoid.

If you read food labels, you’ve probably stumbled across carrageenan. Derived from red kelp, carrageenan (or carrageenin) is a thickening and emulsifying agent widely used in food processing.

Carrageenan has no nutritional value and no flavour. It is used solely to change the texture of processed food products. To thicken them up, to bind ingredients together, to save you the trouble of having to shake your drink or stir your yogurt.

Where is carrageenan hiding?

Because carrageenan is so cheap and plentiful, it is the go-to thickening agent for processed food manufacturers. As a result, you might find it in any processed food product with a thick and creamy texture. Common sources include:

  • Milk products (for example, yogurt, ice cream and cottage cheese)
  • Milk replacements (for example, almond milk, soy milk or rice milk)
  • Nutritional shakes
  • Processed meat products (for example, sandwich meat, hot dogs, chicken fingers, etc)
  • Baby formula
  • Canned soup
  • Frozen dinners

Where does it come from?

There are two basic forms of carrageenan – degraded and undegraded. Degraded carrageenan – extracted with the application of acid – is understood to be a potent carcinogen and is accordingly banned in food products.

“Undegraded” carrageenan, on the other hand, is extracted by boiling in a non-acidic chemical soup. Because it is inert after processing, it is assumed to be safe by food regulators.

On the other hand, the stomach is pretty acidic, isn’t it? Researchers studying the inflammatory effects of carrageenan believe that the acid in our digestive process degrades “safe” carrageenan, much like the chemical process that creates the banned, carcinogenic variety.

What does it do to your body?

Despite being derived from a natural source, several studies have found carrageenan is pretty hard on the digestive system. It has been positively linked with inflammation ulcers, intestinal bleeding and colon cancer.

A paper published by the Cornucopia Institute (great reading, if you’re hungry for more!) reviewed the existing research and concluded that carrageenan – even the “safe” kind, at lower doses than we routinely consume in our modern North American diet – triggers chronic inflammation.

Chronic inflammation is an immune reaction to irritants that can lead to a whole host of serious diseases. Many of those I have touched on in previous Power of Food blog posts. Let me sum it up by saying that if you’re suffering from any chronic or degenerative disease, chronic inflammation could be the cause.

My own view is that carrageenan is an additive to avoid, especially if you’re dealing with chronic digestive distress or allergies.

The good news is that you can do it! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. There are only two types of food: processed and living. The easiest way to eliminate harmful additives from your diet is to add in as much living, plant-based food as you can, whenever you can.

Get into your kitchen today and try my new Vegan Winter Corn Chowder made with homemade hemp milk and coconut milk (carrageenan free) Oh Yeah! 

Using many of my Power of Food recipes will help you avoid reaching for those unhealthy processed food items the next time your shopping at your local grocery store.

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About Adam Hart

Adam Hart is the author of The Power of Food, which shares the secrets of achieving optimum health through living, plant-based foods. International speaker, chef and champion of intention-based living, Adam shows his readers how to awaken an abundance of energy and vitality without giving up their favourite foods. A lover of the great outdoors, Adam spends his free time trekking the mountains of British Columbia. Get the full story here...

  • Melanie Richards

    Ohh so interesting. Thanks Adam. Loving these types of articles!

  • Lisa Princic

    Adam, my son drinks coconut milk and rooibos tea all day long! And I am now realizing it’s full of this stuff. Do you have any recipes on how to make my own coconut milk that makes a great milk substitute?

    • Adam Hart

      Hey Lisa

      I often buy young Thai coconuts and use the liquid and flesh to make my own coconut milk. You can find them at Nesters. Let me know how it goes :)

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  • Kristen J

    I’m with you on the avoidance of processed foods but I’m curious about what you think about about using sea moss in its whole food form?

    • Adam Hart

      Hey Kristen

      I know irish moss is used in a lot of raw recipe’s, but I have not used it before. I do not know enough about it to make an informed comment. What’s your take on it?