Carrageenan. You've likely seen this word on hundreds of labels, since it's used in everything from non-dairy milks to salad dressings. It's even lurking in your lunch meat. But what exactly is it and why is it so controversial?
What Is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is an ingredient extracted from seaweed and used as a thickener and emulsifier in processed foods, including some almond milks. More specifically, it comes from a kind of seaweed called Irish Moss. For centuries, Irish coastal dwellers would forage for the seaweed and boil it up in milk, which would then thicken into a pudding.
Once manufacturers figured out how useful this flavorless substance is in keeping ingredients from separating and creating a thick and creamy texture, it started popping up in just about everything. We've been eating it for decades.
The Carrageenan Controversy
So why is carrageenan suddenly so controversial? Why has the European Union banned its use in baby formula? And why did the National Organic Standards Board, an advisory committee that helps the USDA come up with rules for the organic industry, vote to ban carrageenan from organic foods?
Part of the confusion and controversy is that there are two kinds of carrageenan: the food-grade stuff we've been eating for decades (and has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) and degraded carrageenan (also called poligeenan), which is considered unsafe. But it's important to note this kind of carrageenan is not used in foods, and wouldn't even be accidentally used, since it doesn't offer any thickening power.
The trouble is, some scientists believe even food-grade carrageenan could be causing problems. One such researcher is Dr. Joanne Tobacman, a leader in the anti-carrageenan movement and associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and author of the important "Review of Harmful Gastrointestinal Effects of Carrageenan in Animal Experiments" in 2001. She suggests food-grade carrageenan could break down into more harmful degraded carrageenan during digestion or even during processing.
However, there don't seem to be any human or animal studies to support this. Those studies that used food-grade carrageenan produced mixed results on animals, and since studies haven't been done on humans, we don't really know for sure what effect, if any, food-grade carrageenan has on our digestive tract.
The Bottom Line on Carrageenan
Scientifically, the jury's still out. On the other hand, many people have reported that they feel better when they've cut carrageenan out of their diets. Their stomach issues are gone and their migraines too.
Your best bet? Read the labels (some almond milks will specifically say "carrageenan-free"), consume in moderation, and consult your doctor, especially if you have any kind of inflammatory bowel disease.