There have been milk alternatives available to consumers for years, for those who are lactose intolerant, vegan or vegetarian or just those who like to try something new, add a little variety to their diet and maybe take a break from the usual. Many of those choosing alternatives to cow and goat’s milk opt instead for beverages made from coconut, almond, soy and so forth, and are discovering an ingredient that is pretty much common to many of these beverages; carrageenan.
Carageenan, one of the thickening agents used in the manufacture of milk alternatives, is a gelatinous substance derived from Irish Moss seaweed; gelatinous only in its description, since as a plant product is not actually related to gelatin, but has similar thickening and “jelly” like properties similar to those of agar agar. The name itself is derived from Carraigin, the coastal region of Ireland where it was originally harvested.
Carageenan is added to many nut and soy beverages to give them that familiar creamy mouthfeel; it is even added to some brands of real cream,too, to make it, well, creamier. If you make your own almond milk, for example, it will taste great, and have the same if not better nutritional profile than an off-the-shelf product, but it will not be “creamy” without carrageenan, or any of the other plant based thickening agents. As carrageenan has no food value on its own, and is not digestible, it is basically an additive that makes the product more palatable, familiar, or desirable.
“Carrageenan is a highly processed additive extracted from red seaweed and there is mounting evidence regarding the dangers associated with its stability, systemic inflammation, gastrointestinal disorders, immune system deregulation, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and tumor promotion. And, while carrageenans are technically derived from protists, neither plant nor animal, the question remains, “Does a questionable sea creature additive need to be floating around in vegan almond milk?”
“Studies indicate that carrageenan is in fact degrading in food and scientists are concerned that the acid environment of the stomach may also ‘degrade’ carrageenan once it enters the digestive system, thus exposing the intestines to this potent and widely recognized carcinogen,” explains Karen Langston, Certified Nutritionist and Board Member for the National Association of Nutrition Professionals.” -from honeycolony.com
Some companies, like Stonyfield Organic and White Wave Foods have listened to consumer concerns and removed carageenan from their products. On the other hand, many folks, like the good people at fmccarageenan.com avow that the stuff is totally great and safe. Ultimately, as consumers it is up to us to read the labels on our food products, and do a little research into what we want to put in our bodies. If a product like carrageenan is getting so-so reviews, perhaps it is best to consume it in moderation.