Sunday, December 31, 2006

Carrageenan, Its Use Doesn't Gel

I've been tempted to buy soymilk again. 'Tis the season of eggnog, hot chocolate, and warm spiced chais ... since dairy milk doesn't mesh with a Bix constitution, soymilk proved a great alternative. It's also convenient. While I've had success with homemade cashew and almond milks, they're not always at the ready. Thanks to Dean Foods, the largest dairy distributor and processor in the world, and owner of the ubiquitous Silk Soymilk, I could easily pick up a quart of this stuff while shopping.

But I don't do the soy anymore...

The day I read the American Heart Association's grim review of soy protein and soy isoflavones (a review I've summarized in the bulleted list at the bottom of this post) was the day I hung up the soymilk.

There's a third reason why I won't buy Silk Soymilk (besides its health risks, and patronage of a company - Dean Foods - whose business is factory farming): carrageenan.

What is carrageenan?

Carrageenan is a food additive. It's used as a thickener, or "texturizer". It's extracted from certain types of marine algae or seaweed, which gives the impression that food containing it is "all natural". Unfortunately, it produces a response in animals' gastrointestinal tracts that is anything but natural.

An intensive and very persuasive review of 45 studies of carrageenan was published in the government-funded journal Environmental Health Prospectives (EHP) in October, 2001:1

Review of Harmful Gastrointestinal Effects of Carrageenan in Animal Experiments

The author, Dr. Joanne Tobacman, concludes:
"There seems to be enough evidence associating carrageenan with significant gastrointestinal lesions, including malignancies, to avoid ingesting it."
- Tobacman, Carrageenan May Cause Stomach Lesions, Cancer
Apparently there was enough evidence that in 1972 the FDA considered restricting its use in food. No restriction came to pass. In 1979 they indicated a regulation was in the works. No regulation ensued.

Carrageenan is languishing on the FDA's GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) list. Probably the only reason it's there is via trust that manufacturers will use a heavier-weight version of carrageenan, one thought to be less toxic. It is this distinction - high molecular weight (undegraded) carrageenan vs. the known-to-be-harmful low molecular weight (degraded) carrageenan - that was intended, among other things, to be spelled out in the 1970's regulation ... the one that never materialized.

Thanks to Tobacman and the research she meticulously nitpicked, we now know this distinction may be pointless:
"Bacterial action, stomach acid, and food preparation may lead to degraded carrageenan by transforming the higher molecular weight form of the gum into the lower molecular weight form."
- Tobacman, Carrageenan May Cause Stomach Lesions, Cancer

Let's Talk Amounts

Below is a Table from Tobacman's Review. It lists carrageenan content in a few popular foods. I wish soy milk had been included.

Click for larger.

Take a look at the percent carrageenan in frosting mix (3% to 4%). Remember that figure. When guinea pigs were given 2% degraded carrageenan for 20-30 days, all of them developed ulcerations in their colon, and 75% of them developed >200 ulcers! When given a 1% undegraded solution, 80% developed ulcerations. They went as low as 0.1% and still routinely produced ulcers in these animals.

That's just a guinea pig, you say? In fact, mice, rats, ferrets, rabbits, and monkeys all developed ulcerations (rats were most susceptible to cancers) when fed carrageenan. Those are just animals, you say? Tobacman conducted her own studies on human breast tissue, with foreboding results:
"At concentrations as low as 0.00014% ... carrageenan was associated with [mammary] cell death. ... The destruction of these cells in tissue culture by a low concentration of a widely used food additive suggests a dietary mechanism for mammary carcinogenesis not considered previously."
- Filament Disassembly and Loss of Mammary Myoepithelial Cells after Exposure to alpha-Carrageenan
Just last month (November 2006), Tobacman et al. published results of a study on human intestinal cells:
"These results show, for the first time, that exposure of human intestinal epithelial cells to carrageenan triggers a distinct inflammatory [reaction]."
- Carrageenan Induces Interleukin-8 Production through Distinct Bcl10 Pathway in Normal Human Colonic Epithelial Cells
Ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, and possible cancers of the colon, breast, and prostate. No, thank you. I'm not that enamored of Silk Soymilk or any other carrageenan-containing food to risk these ailments. It's not as if manufacturers have no options. Locust bean, guar, and xanthan gums provide similar thickening traits as carrageenan without the risks.

I guess it's back to my nut milks ... 2006, the year of the nut.

1 The EHP is published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services. I say this because I like to believe there's some entity that's not in the business of being in business. I'm not so dewy-eyed to think my beliefs apply to a division of the US government, but at least the NIH can be a little more objective than, say, Dean Foods.

Photo of Irish moss, a type of red algae used to extract carrageenan, by Richard Aumonier, a sculptor based in London.



lelumarie said...

I have a carrageenan allergy and, I appreciate this entry and your research.

Tobacman, from the newer things I've read, still stands by her words & research -- even though the FDA now considers carrageenan GRAS... which is sad.

Thanks again.

Kimberly said...

As I started reading this article, I thought that I would suggest the new So Dairy Coconut Milk by Turtle Mountain, but decided I'd better check the ingr. list before doing so....sure enough, there in the otherwise innocuous list was Carageenan. The company will be hearing from me, and I guess I, too, will have to return to almond milk!

lelumarie said...

I get coconut milk at a local international foods store. Also at this store is soy milk.
Interestingly, in those products from other countries, I've yet to see carrageenan on the label. Not even agar. (I don't like not buying local but at least it supports a locally owned business.)

Scholarly sociology articles that I've read about this pretty much state that carrageenan production supports over half of the economics in the Phillipines with the U.S. sales as 85% !
It's sad that if we stopped adding things to food for the absurd reasons they do for carrageenan like "mouth feel" or "avoiding freezer burn" -- that a whole country would practically be in financial crisis.

The most annoying part is walking in to the health foods Co-op and seeing all these signs about the products being "gluten free" or other helpful non-allergen products... and then carrageenan being in most of it. Umm, "natural"? Riiight.
The best quote I've found about the "natural" issue:

"Carrageenan is about as wholesome as monosodium glutamate
(MSG), which is extracted from rice, and can equally be
considered natural. Aspartame (NutraPoison) is also natural,
as it is extracted from decayed plant matter that has been
underground for millions of years (oil). So too are many
other substances such as carrageenan that can also be
classified by FDA and USDA as wholesome and natural
food additives.
"Just because something comes from a natural source does
not mean that it is safe. The small black dots in the
eyes of potatoes contain substances that are instantly
fatal if eaten. Got poison? You will if you eat the
black dots on the "eyes" of potatoes."

Felix Olschewski said...

this is a great post. I took the freedom of copying a few of the links for one of my own posts.
Eventually, the last big creamery on the German market stopped producing carrageenan-less cream. There are only few regional suppliers left. A shame.

Bix said...

Felix, I wish I could read your site! Your English is very good.
Thank you. Yes, they should leave the cream alone :)

Anonymous said...

There are three types of carrageenan, one of those is known to be very dangerous as you have said. The other two havent been proven dangerous, and although the carrageenan that we eat is made trough a chemical process rather than the type that has been used for hundred of years in ireland, i dont really think there is a reason to freak out! (Only if you are allergic of course, but it still seams a better alternative than gelatin plus also has different properties to be useful)

lelumarie said...

Link to Felix's article:

r. prasad said...

Thanks for the post.

A graduate student in Harvard's History of Science department wrote this paper on carrageenan:

Carrageenan and the Acceptance of Food Additive Toxicity, 1950-2000

It's shows the tug of war between science and industry--and gives another reason to avoid carrageenan.

Anonymous said...

I live in ireland and my parents always made a dessert from carrageen moss seaweed that was given to us anytime we were sick as it was said to be nourishing and easy on the tummy. I am amazed to read all this negative information about it. Can anyone clarify if the carageen that causes stomach upset etc is one that has undergone some kind of chemical process, or does it relate to the seaweed that is on sale in shops in Ireland? I would be very interested to have this clarified. thank you.

lelumarie said...

It could be that the type of seaweed that is used is different. They use 3 different types (kappa, lambda, iota) for mainstream production in the US / Philippines, and they aren't necessarily the 'red moss' to which I believe you are referring.
As far as I know they do not have chemicals added; it just undergoes processing (boiling down, perhaps, like when it is used for gelatin). But anything that changes form has potential to alter composition at a molecular level.
I have never heard of carrageenan being good for the digestive system; in fact, several studies show otherwise (I can find the citations if you'd like.) However, I have heard it is good for several other things, including an HPV preventative.
The results are a case by case basis. Many 'all natural' ingredients and foods can be harmful to certain people. For instance, some people are allergic to peanut butter and some are not.
So perhaps the seaweed that is used in Ireland is not the same; perhaps there aren't many cases because people have built an immunity since it is a cultural food... It is hard to know what the difference is or if there are any, but maybe this information is a start.