If you’ve purchased a dairy-free milk recently, you may have noticed that the bottle says something like “now made without carrageenan.” If your response to this was what even is carrageenan?, great question. Carrageenan is a substance extracted from red and purple seaweeds that's used to thicken and emulsify food products. While carrageenan is used throughout the food industry (from helping cocoa solids stay evenly suspended in chocolate milk to a achieving a better texture in sliced deli meat), because it is made entirely from plants, carrageenan is often widely used in vegan and dairy-free food products.
Now, you may be wondering, Why are these companies announcing they’re now carrageenan-free? Another great question.
Although it is a naturally occurring polysaccharide, carrageenan’s potential toxicity has been brought up recent years, mostly due to the speculation (based on small lab studies) that the ingredient can cause digestive inflammation, ulcers, and cancer. Because of these health concerns, groups like the Cornucopia Institute want to ban carrageenan from organic food products. Many people, especially those who pay close attention to avoiding what they believe to be inflammatory foods, stopped eating carrageenan following these claims.
However, the cited studies consist of animals receiving high doses of carrageenan, so the FDA has ruled that the additive is safe when consumed in the small amounts that it appears in our food. The FDA has published a list of conditions that deem carrageenan acceptable to use as a food additive. Among them is that the sulfate content by weight in the polysaccharide is 20 to 40 percent, and that the additive is used “in the amount necessary for an emulsifier, stabilizer, or thickener in foods, except for those standardized foods that do not provide for such use.” Additionally, if carrageenan is used, the FDA stipulates that it must be clearly written on the ingredients list.
Whether carrageenan is or is not inflammatory or toxic, fear around the ingredient is still widespread. Califia Farms, an almond milk company, has gone completely carrageenan-free, citing consumer request. In a note on the company's blog, founder and CEO Greg Steltenpohl writes that carrageenan is a “very common natural ingredient in the beverage industry and has been proven safe to consume by the FDA.” Yet Steltenpohl goes on to say that his team found that locust bean gum created a similarly textured product, and now every bottle of Califia almond milk is made without carrageenan.
When consumed in moderation, carrageenan (like most food additives) is probably fine for you. We all know that the less processed a food is, the better, but if you find that your chocolate milk has carrageenan in the ingredient list there’s really no need to panic. But if you’re feeling iffy on the additive, there are plenty of ways to avoid it, just check your labels.