Food preservation is linked to the use of supplements and additives that try to lengthen the expiration date of products or give it a particular texture and thickness. This is the case of the carrageenan or carrageenans, which we can see in a multitude of foods that we take daily.
However, in recent years the problem of consumption of this additive has been commented, since its healthiness and the side effects that can derive from exceeding the recommended dose have been questioned. And yes, this dose is relatively easy to overcome.
Therefore, we want to make a review to know what exactly the carrageenan substance is and in what it benefits or harms our body.
What is a carrageenan?
Carrageenan is an additive widely used as a thickener, emulsifier and also preservative in beverages and foods. Its origin is natural, since it is extracted from red algae (known as Irish moss).
Carrageenan is easy to find (and is marked on the label) in nut milks (such as walnuts or almonds), yogurts and meat products, among others.
As a chemical structure, it is a mixture of polysaccharides galactose derivatives. It is common to find it in algae families Rhodophyceae. Specifically, the largest extraction of carrageenan occurs in the species Chondrus crispus (Irish moss), a species of small size and that inhabits the cold areas of the ocean of that country, in the North Atlantic.
They have been used as a thickener for more than 600 years, especially in the manufacture of desserts.
With the scientific advance and the obtaining of new analytical methods, since 1960 experiments are being carried out to know the incidence of carrageenan in our health.
In some studies, it has been suggested that its consumption in high doses may provoke gastrointestinal problems, ulcers and inflammations of the digestive system.
Therefore, there is a growing wave of consumers and organizations that advocate eliminating carrageenans among the ingredients of any product.
This comes from the fact that the pharmaceutical industry develop a product based on this substance, but known as polygenane, with a somewhat smaller molecular structure. However, in the tests that were carried out, the animals subjected to the tests suffered from ulcerative colitis.
The medical authorities allowed the consumption of carrageenan as long as it was not degraded to that molecular weight (20,000 Da compared to 100,000 for the substance extracted from the red algae).
In addition, a consumption limit in Europe, fixed at 75 mg/kg body weight per day. In infant feeding of babies with an age of less than 3 and a half months, its consumption is prohibited.
Although there is currently insufficient evidence of direct harm to consumers from taking carrageenan, it is normal for consumers to try to avoid carrageenan.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded in 2018 that there are no compelling reasons to consider that, in addition, it could have carcinogenic compounds that cause, in the medium or long term, cancer risk.
However, it also alludes to the lack of experience when it comes to knowing exactly what the degradation process of carrageenan is like and whether harmful substances such as those offered by polygenane (a smaller structure) can be formed.
What is clear is that, depending on our eating habits, we could easily exceed the maximum amount allowed per day of 75 mg / kg.
Possible side effects associated with carrageenans
According to various trials, which today disagree if it is carrageenans or polygenans, the main side effects found are as follows, without specifying whether it is due to excess consumption or the specific type of substance:
- Food allergy
- Glucose intolerance
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Gastric inflammation
In the experiments on animals, conclusions were drawn that exposure to undegraded and degraded carrageenan was associated with the occurrence of intestinal ulcerations and neoplasms.
The main problem is that the substance that, a priori, does not offer side effects (carregananos), when it degrades yes, and does so in acidic medium, which can happen in normal digestion conditions or through interactions with gut bacteria.
When carrageenan is degraded in acidic media or by microbiological activity, a part of it can have carcinogenic effects. In the evaluated tests of animal digestion, it was obtained that less than 5% of this substance is degraded. Still, it’s a significant amount.
In any case, it has not yet been evaluated whether there is a negative response in humans to the intake of carrageenans, or the effects they cause in older animals (like us), are not so striking or are mild discomfort that we do not know how to interpret or locate the source of the problem.
Is it safe for consumption?
Currently it is allowed to be used as an additive in various foods, so we have to think that it is safe for consumption, although more scientific evidence in humans is still necessary.
On the other hand, although the Food and Drug Administration still approves carrageenan, in 2016 its exclusion in foods considered organic was approved in the United States. These are those foods that are labeled “Organic USDA.”
What foods contain carrageenan?
Carrageenan can be found in many foods, including those adapted to vegetarian or vegan food. Let’s not forget that it comes from seaweed.
Some ingredients that contain this compound are the following, although it is not necessary to generalize and assume that all brands use it as an ingredient or additive.
- Ice cream
- Chocolate milk
- Coconut milk
- Almond milk
- Hemp milk
- Rice milk
- Soy milk
- Non-dairy or vegan desserts