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The Hidden Food Ingredient Linked to Pain and Inflammation

There’s a food additive so ubiquitous in the food industry it is found in most packaged foods, restaurant sauces and even many foods that have been “certified organic.” That ingredient is carrageenan. While the additive starts out harmless enough (it comes from the seaweed known as Irish moss) it is then processed to extract the ingredient known as carrageenan, which acts as a thickener or emulsifier for many prepared foods.

Like most people, I originally thought that carrageenan was a harmless extract from seaweed, so I didn’t give it much consideration. Then I heard that researchers were giving animals carrageenan to induce pain and inflammation as a way to prepare the animals for scientific studies exploring anti-pain drugs. That was the first I’d heard of carrageenan being used for harm. So I began to investigate.

Dr. Joanne Tobacman has conducted many studies on the effects of carrageenan consumption, including one in the Journal of Diabetes Research. After eating carrageenan for only six days, animals fed carrageenan developed glucose intolerance, an umbrella term used to describe impaired metabolism involving excessively high blood sugar levels. Dr. Tobacman found that the food additive caused blood sugar levels to skyrocket, indicating that it may lead to the development of diabetes. She indicates that carrageenan used in animals’ diets so commonly cause diabetes that the additive could be used for mouse models of the study of diabetes.

She also found that carrageenan causes intestinal and systemic inflammation in animal studies. Considering that inflammation is a well-established factor in most chronic disease, including: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, pain disorders and many others, any food additive in common use is a serious concern. Dr. Tobacman also indicates that the amount of carrageenan found in most peoples’ diets is sufficient to cause inflammation.

 

Sources of Carrageenan

Carrageenan is found in common foods, including:

  • infant formula
  • ice cream
  • cream
  • butter
  • soy milk
  • almond milk
  • rice milk
  • cottage cheese
  • sour cream
  • yogurt
  • coffee creamers
  • vegan cheese alternatives
  • egg nog
  • protein supplements
  • aloe vera gel
  • deli meats
  • juices
  • puddings
  • pizzas
  • chocolate bars
  • coffee beverages
  • many packaged foods

Additionally, some supplements, particularly those involving gel caps, commonly contain carrageenan. And, most grocery store rotisserie chickens typically contain the additive.

The Cornucopia Institute has compiled a comprehensive list of organic foods that contain carrageenan, since the ingredient is legally allowed in foods bearing the label “organic” or “certified organic.”

 
a Care2 favorite by Michelle Schoffro Cook      About Michelle
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Why I’m Avoiding Carrageenan: A Cardiologist Explains

Dr. Joel Kahn   August 8, 2015

I learn from my patients every day. This week I was asked by one woman, who suffers from arthritis, obesity and heart disease, if she should be worried about the carrageenan in her almond milk.

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.

carrageenan

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.


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Can Carrageenan in Some Soy Milk Cause Cancer?

 4/4/2005

Carrageenan is a common food additive that comes from red seaweed also known as Irish Moss or Chondrus Crispus. Carrageen has long been used as a thickener and emulsifier in ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese and other processed food products, including soy milk.

However, results of a study published in October 2001 suggest that carrageenan may not be as safe as once thought. Findings from animal studies and a review of the scientific literature showed that degraded forms of carrageenan can cause ulcerations and cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.

The researcher who made the connection between carrageenan and cancer, Joanne Tobacman, an assistant professor of clinical internal medicine at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, noted that as long ago as 1972 the FDA determined that there was enough evidence from animal studies to limit the type of carrageenan that could be used in foods. However, in 1979, the FDA rescinded its proposed limitation and since then, no action has been taken.

Concerns about carrageenan have centered on the “degraded” type which is distinguished from the “undegraded” type by its lower molecular weight. Most of the studies linking carrageenan to cancer and other gastrointestinal disorders have focused on degraded carrageenan. But Dr. Tobacman thinks that undegraded carrageenan – the kind most widely used as a food additive – might also be associated with malignancies and other stomach problems. She suggests that such factors as bacterial action, stomach acid and food preparation may transform undegraded carrageenan into the more dangerous degraded type. Dr. Tobacman’s findings were published in the October 2001 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, a publication of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a branch of the National Institutes of Health. So far, no government action has been taken as a result of Dr. Tobacman’s findings. She is currently looking into the possibility of an association between carrageenan and breast cancer risk.


Given this new information on carrageenan, I would recommend avoiding regular consumption of products containing it. While some brands of soy milk do contain the additive, others do not. With a little research you should be able to find a product that suits your taste and doesn’t contain carrageenan.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
source: drweil.com