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Carrageenan: A Hidden Cause of Digestive Damage

Carrageenan is a common food additive used as an emulsifier, thickening agent and preservative. It’s found in a variety of items, particularly vegan alternative products, where it is used in place of animal-based gelatin. Carrageenan is most commonly found in nut milks, such as almond, hemp, rice, coconut and soy, but also appears in both vegan and non-vegan cheeses, milks, yogurts and creams.


Although carrageenan is derived from a natural source as an extract from red seaweed, it is processed in alkaline solutions and the end result is far from harmless.

Many animal studies on carrageenan have shown adverse effects on the digestive system, including symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, like inflammation, bloating and diarrhea, as well as increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut), ulcers of the colon and intestinal lining abnormalities.


Human studies of in vitro intestinal epithelial cells have shown increased inflammation leading to intestinal permeability, as well as “increased cell death, reduced cell proliferation and cell cycle arrest”. So, upon exposure to carrageenan, the cells of the human intestinal tract are becoming inflamed, showing signs of leaky gut, dying faster, regenerating slower and ceasing to function.


Another study found that food-grade carrageenan, which is undegraded and approved for consumption, may actually chemically transform through the acidic digestive process and its interaction with intestinal bacteria into a much more harmful version, known as degraded carrageenan. This degraded form is *extremely* inflammatory, shown to cause intestinal ulcerations and widely accepted to be carcinogenic.


Test results of food-grade carrageenan have also found contamination with this harmful form of degraded carrageenan in ranges between 5% and 25%, meaning the approved food-grade carrageenan may already have the harmful degraded carrageenan in it when it’s being added to food and beverage products.


In 2016, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) heard evidence on the potential health risks of carrageenan and voted to remove it from their approved list of organic ingredients. Less than two years later, however, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) overruled and reversed the decision. This means that even if you buy a product that says it’s organic, it can still have carrageenan as an ingredient.


Carrageenan has no nutritional value and only serves to make processed and packaged products more appealing to consumers by enhancing appearance, odor, color and mouthfeel, as well as extending shelf life.


Always read ingredient lists and skip anything with carrageenan, or better yet, just skip processed and packaged foods altogether. Choose whole, real, organic foods and you’ll never need to worry about what’s on the ingredient list.