Have you stopped eating dairy to reduce inflammation because you suffer from endometriosis, uterine fibroids or PCOS? Have you become accustomed to the commercial nut milk you chose as a replacement? After all, it’s easy to grab a carton off the shelf while at the grocery store.
What you may not know is that many nut milks contain carrageenan, an additive to prevent it from separating in the carton, which is linked to causing inflammation in the body. If you are watching your intake of inflammatory foods due to your fertility health and you are finding it isn’t getting better, take a look at what you are eating. If you eat prepackaged nut milks and dairy alternatives, or indulge in the occasional small carton of yogurt, it’s time to start reading ingredient labels with an eagle eye. It’s time to choose brands without carrageenan. Let me share why!
What is Carrageenan?
Pronounced car•ra•gee•nan, carrageenan is an extract of the red seaweed Irish Moss (Chondrus crispus) that is used as a “natural” thickener and emulsifier to improve the texture of many natural and conventional prepackaged beverages and foods.
Completely void of nutrients and flavorless, carrageenan is used as a:
- substitute for fat and as a thickener in low fat/non-fat foods and vegetable-based dairy substitutes
- stabilizer for beverages that separate
Why Carrageenan Is Harmful
Carrageenan is known to trigger an immune response or reaction within the body that causes the body to work to attack it as a foreign invader leading to systemic inflammation.
The bulk of research has focused on carrageenan causing and exacerbating gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), spastic colon, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic diarrhea, bloating, and more severe issues like colon cancer and intestinal lesions (cuts).
The concern for fertility health is that we know chronic inflammation is a root cause of many female fertility health issues. Inflammation is a component of:
- painful menstruation
- ovarian cysts
- uterine fibroids
- Asherman’s syndrome
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
- Immunological infertility causing recurrent miscarriage
- antisperm antibodies
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
Women with any of the above female reproductive health issues need to, in part, support the body in having a healthy immune and inflammatory response. They often begin doing so through modifying their diet. While diet modification is necessary, unfortunately, many packaged, seemingly minimally processed health foods deemed organic and natural continue to contain carrageenan. I share more about these foods later in the article.
Joanne K. Tobacman, M.D., associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, whose body of work focuses on clarifying and making known the effects of carrageenan on the human and animal body, reported in her 2001 review published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that:
- “…exposure to carrageenan causes inflammation and that when we consume processed foods containing it, we ingest enough to cause inflammation in our bodies.”
- “all forms of carrageenan are capable of causing inflammation. This is bad news.”
- “…in the past, drug investigators actually used carrageenan to cause inflammation in tissues in order to test the anti-inflammatory properties of new drugs.”
- “when laboratory mice are exposed to low concentrations of carrageenan for 18 days, they develop “profound” glucose intolerance and impaired insulin action, both of which can lead to diabetes.”
Dr. Tobacman also shared that “research suggests that acid digestion, heating, bacterial action and mechanical processing can all accelerate degradation of food-grade carrageenan.” This is a problem! Food-grade, undegraded* carrageenan in processed foods is heated and mechanically processed and as a result of normal bacterial activity in the digestive system, can degrade* and turn carcinogenic in the body.
Not only does food-grade carrageenan cause a heightened immune response and inflammation, but the body’s innate digestive process breaks down food-grade carrageenan making it carcinogenic.
*undegraded carrageenan – food-grade, deemed safe, but can be contaminated with degraded carrageenan
**degraded carrageenan – low molecular weight, used to cause inflammation and disease in laboratory animals to evaluate the efficacy of anti-inflammatory medications, “classified as a ’possible human carcinogen‘ by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the United Nations”
How to Avoid Carrageenan
Many organic food makers are working to eliminate using carrageenan, but it hasn’t been taken out of all organic food brands yet. Many conventional and natural foods brands still use it regularly. So, be sure to read labels!
Foods and food products that may contain carrageenan are:
- cream and whipping cream, buttermilk, eggnog, coffee creamer, chocolate milk, ice cream, cottage cheese, sour cream, yogurt, and squeezable yogurt pouches
- prepackaged soy, rice and almond milk, coconut milk and water, nutritional drinks (often marketed as meal replacement or protein shakes), juices
- deli meats like sliced turkey, cheese alternatives, desserts, commercial canned soup and broth
- beer – We suggest to avoid drinking beer when preparing for conception and trying to conceive, but in case you have a sip here or there, according to the Cornucopia Institute, “The law does not require ingredients to be listed on alcoholic beverages, and carrageenan is commonly used to clarify beer.”
The Cornucopia Institute offers a free Buying Guide to help you choose organic carrageenan-free food products.
What stood out to me the most is that the acidic environment of the stomach may cause undegraded, food-grade carrageenan to degrade and become a carcinogen. This is a huge long-term health concern.
One interesting discovery in looking at carrageenan research is that commercially available sexual lubricants may contain carrageenan. There are actually clinical trials that have been conducted to evaluate if carrageenan can inhibit the infection of cells by the broad range of sexually transmitted HPVs (Human Papillomaviruses). Further trials are suggested to prove efficacy.
For now, try to avoid carrageenan in the foods you eat especially if dealing with any gastrointestinal health issues or infertility.
- Carrageenan How a “Natural” Food Additive is Making Us Sick (Rep.). (2013, March). Retrieved from: http://www.cornucopia.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Carrageenan-Report1.pdf
- Carrageenan: Studies Reinforce Link to Inflammation, Cancer, and Diabetes. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.cornucopia.org/carrageenan-how-a-natural-food-additive-is-making-us-sick/
- Tobacman, J. K. (2001). Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments. Environmental Health Perspectives, 109(10), 983-994. doi:10.1289/ehp.01109983. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1242073/
- Is Carrageenan Safe? | Carrageenan Information | Andrew Weil, M.D. (2018, June 26). Retrieved from: https://www.drweil.com/diet-nutrition/food-safety/is-carrageenan-safe/