Almond has become all the rage, with dairy milk becoming virtually redundant in most café’s. Dairy milk has received a bad rap too, with it being blamed for everything from stomach upset to acne.
Almond milk has fewer calories and is great for those with dairy intolerances, making it the milk of choice lately, particularly over the past five years. But is it really healthier for you?
Now, next time you pick up a carton of almond milk, take a close look at the ingredients, and my bet is you'll find the rather fancy word, carrageenan listed amongst the many ingredients.
Carrageenan is used principally as a thickener and stabiliser. This means that it helps retain form and flavouring in a food or drink.
Carrageenan can be found in many processed foods and products. It is especially common in boxed non-dairy milk like almond and coconut milk. This means that those who are lactose-intolerant, follow a vegan or paleo diet, or choose not to eat dairy are exposed to much higher levels of the product than others who consume cow's milk.
Alternative health specialists, including Dr Andrew Weil, claim that the ingredient is toxic to the body, specifically causing inflammation, which can lead to cancer, heart disease, and even Alzheimer’s, among other negative health results.
According to Healthline, 'since the late 1960s, there’s been much controversy surrounding the health effects of carrageenan. Some evidence suggests that carrageenan triggers inflammation, gastrointestinal ulceration and that it damages your digestive system. People have been petitioning for products with carrageenan to be labelled with a warning or removed entirely. Read on to learn more about this common food additive and why you may want to avoid it.'
Let's get to the side effects and dangers of carrageenan.
Products with carrageenan may be labelled as “natural,” but limited studies determine that carrageenan may promote or cause:
These are just some of the known side effects of carrageenan. Not enough studies have been done to fully comprehend how this product affects other areas of the body!
For now, let's talk about bloating. The dreaded bloat. Many of the limited studies conducted on the dangers of carrageenan were on animals and cells.
The actual human reports of bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, and other digestive issues were mostly self-reported from people doing their own tests. These individuals also reported relief from stomach issues when they dropped carrageenan from their diet.
However, one study, called 'Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments' suggested that there may be no substantial difference between “food-grade” (undegraded) and degraded carrageenan.
According to Cornucopia, test results of food-grade carrageenan carried at least 5 per cent degraded carrageenan. One sample had about 25 per cent.
Degraded carrageenan is a carcinogenic (cancer-causing) version that isn’t approved for use in food products. The interesting point to consider here is they use degraded carrageenan to induce inflammation in animal studies.
So, is undegraded carrageenan safe for consumption and does it cause digestive issues?
Currently, that is the million-dollar question. The Food and Drug Administration approves this ingredient. But in 2016, the National Organic Standards Board voted to remove carrageenan from their approved list of food products. This meant that foods produced with carrageenan can no longer be labelled “USDA organic.”
There needs to be further studies done on humans to confirm any possible link between carrageenan and digestive problems. We don't know enough to link the two.
In the meantime, you may want to limit how much carrageenan you drink or eat daily.
Carrageenan favours vegan and vegetarian products because these products aren't often dense or thick by nature since they’re usually plant-based.
Since carrageenan is a plant, manufacturers use it to replace gelatine, which is made from animal parts. Let's talk about which foods contain carrageenan. You should consider limiting your intake of these foods:
- chocolate milk
- cottage cheese
- cream (especially 'thickened cream)
- ice cream
- almond milk
- coconut milk
- hemp milk
- rice milk
- soy milk
- diary alternatives, such as vegan cheeses or non-dairy desserts
- deli meats
What should we take away from all this? Carrageenan is a product to be cautious about, and if you're a heavy almond milk drinker like me, consider removing it from your diet and see if there’s any improvement in how you’re feeling.
In the USA and Australia, it’s a legal requirement to list carrageenan on a product’s ingredients list, so it should be pretty straightforward to begin eliminating foods with the product.
Or you can buy almond milk sans Carrageenan. This is my favourite one. It's the best quality almond milk I've ever drunk and it's really wholesome tasting.
Talk to a doctor if you continue to experience inflammation or digestive issues after removing carrageenan. This may signal that carrageenan isn’t responsible for your symptoms.
Note: This article is not intended to provide specialty medical advice, and the points in this article may not apply to everyone.
Always seek professional medical advice when in doubt.
Despina Karpathiou is an accredited makeup artist, beautician and lifestyle writer based in Sydney, Australia. She is currently studying Skin Health and Nutrition and is passionate about makeovers and healing skin (and health) conditions from the inside out. Follow her here for all things skin, health and beauty.