Firstly let me say – if you are making your own nut milk and not adding carrageenan, then you don’t need to freak out.
But if you’re like me and buy commercially made nut milk, it’s time to look at the label more closely.
You see in order to keep the water and the nut bits together, along with any other additional ingredients – manufacturers must use an emulsifier (or two) so that it doesn’t all seperate out and become unpleasant to use.
The trouble is one of the most commonly used emulsifiers – carrageenan – is bad news for our gut, and our health.
Carrageenan – A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing
At first glance carrageenan looks innocent enough. Derived from seaweed it appears to be a natural and innocuous choice, as far as emulsifiers go. But this ingredient, also referred to as e407, is nowhere near as harmless as it first appears.
According to R. A. S. Hemat, in Principles of Orthomolecularism, even in the 1940s carrageenan was recognised as a ‘dangerous allergen’ with granulomas, immunodeficiency, arthritis and other inflammation being attributed to its ingestion.
A search of the literature revealed its effects on reducing stomach acid was first reported in the early ’60s, as was ‘carrageenan-granuloma’ – defined as a mass of granulation tissue, typically produced in response to infection, inflammation, or the presence of a foreign substance.
Carrageenan was also used to induce oedema and abscesses to test anti-inflammatory drugs (including steroids) [1,2] although this was through sub-cutaneous injection, not oral ingestion. Interestingly, however, even sub-cutaneous injection of carrageenan caused gut inflammation.
A little later, animals fed carrageenan developed ulcerative colitis [4,5] and in the mid-’60s they were using carrageenan to experimentally induce enteritis (read inflammation of the intestinal tract) and, these days, it is now used specifically to induce gut inflammation in animal studies.[7,8,9]
When animals were given carrageenan prior to another gastric irritant, they were even more ill with much higher inflammatory markers, more pronounced loss of antioxidant enzymes and a higher mortality rate. This indicates that carrageenan is weakening the integrity of the tissue rendering it more vulnerable to further insults (which, in real life for us, looks like alcohol/sugar/stress/processed food). In animals studies we also know that carrageenan enhances the induction of cancer when used alongside carcinogens, further pointing to its ability to weaken and disrupt healthy gut tissue.
The effects of carrageenan on the human gut may vary, like all things, as a result of the health (or lack thereof) of our gut flora but – given most people have some degree of leaky gut, inflammation and compromised microflora it’s quite a game of Russian roulette and the odds are not stacked in our favour. Additionally, it does appear that the deleterious effect is more likely or more marked in vitamin C deficiency [13,14] and, given only 5.1% of Australians eat the recommended 2 servings of fruit and 5-6 servings of vegetables – this also increases the likelihood of it being an issue.
Cause For Alarm
In 2001, J K Tobacman reviewed the association between exposure to carrageenan and the occurrence of colonic ulcerations and gastrointestinal neoplasms (cancer) in animal models and concluded that, because of the acknowledged carcinogenic properties of degraded carrageenan in animal models and the cancer-promoting effects of undegraded carrageenan in experimental models, the widespread use of carrageenan in the Western diet should be reconsidered.
Fast forward to the most recent research, and it’s alarming. Most recently, a study found that carrageenan displayed varying levels of interference with gastric digestive proteolysis and a significant decrease in pepsin activity. It also affected the epithelial barrier function, including ‘redistribution of the tight-junction protein Zonula Occludens (Zo)-1, changes in cellular F-actin architecture and increased monolayer permeability to the transfer of macromolecules’ ultimately causing leaky gut.
“The widely used food additive carrageenan has been shown to induce intestinal inflammation, ulcerative colitis-like symptoms, or neoplasm in the gut epithelia in animal models, which are also clinical features of human inflammatory bowel disease.”
In this study on human intestinal epithelial cells, pro-inflammatory markers were triggered (NF-κB and IL-8) in an attempt by the immune system to mount a response to the assault. Where the immune system was unable to respond adequately the gut barrier was compromised, which was associated with the reduced gene expression of tight junction component zonula occludens 1 and its irregular localisation in the epithelial monolayer (read = leaky gut).
So, in a nutshell (pun intended), it appears that carrageenan may reduce protein and peptide bioaccessibility (meaning we can’t digest and therefore absorb protein properly), disrupt normal gut epithelial function, promote intestinal inflammation, and consequently compromise human health.
Read Labels Carefully
Quite frankly, I am very surprised that manufacturers are continuing to use carrageenan e407 in their products and I really encourage you to take a closer look at the ingredients list of your preferred nut milk and all packaged foods as carrageenan is still used widely as a thickener, stabiliser, and texturiser in a variety of processed foods prevalent in the Western diet.
Tell me, do you have a good nut milk that you use that is carrageenan-free? I’d love to hear your recommendations in the comments below!
- Benitz KF, Hall LM. The Carrageenin-induced abscess as a new test for anti-inflammatory activity of steroids and nonsteroids. Arch Int Pharmacodyn Ther. 1963;144:185-95.
- Winter CA, Risley EA, Nuss GW. Carrageenin-induced edema in hind paw of the rat as an assay for antiiflammatory drugs. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 1962;111:544-7.
- Hutton CW, Corfield AP, Clamp JR, et al.The gut in the acute phase response: changes in colonic and hepatic enzyme activity in response to dermal inflammation in the rat. Clin Sci (Lond). 1987;73(2):165-9.
- Watt J, Marcus R. Ulcerative colitis in rabbits fed with degraded carrageenan. J Pathol. 1970;100(2):Piv.
- Watt J, Marcus R. Carrageenan-induced ulceration of the large intestine in the guinea pig. Gut. 1971; 12(2): 164–171.
- Lambelin G, Mees G, Foster M, et al. Treatment of experimental enteritis induced by carrageenan. Gastroenterologia. 1966;106(1):13-24.
- Fujita T, Sakurai K. Efficacy of glutamine-enriched enteral nutrition in an experimental model of mucosal ulcerative colitis. Br J Surg. 1995;82(6):749-51.
- Moyana TN, Xiang J, Qi Y, et al. Development of the early mucosal lesions in experimental inflammatory bowel disease–implications for pathogenesis. Exp Mol Pathol. 1994;60(2):119-29.
- Watt J, Marcus R. Experimental ulcerative disease of the colon in animals. Gut. 1973; 14(6): 506–510.
- Wei W, Feng W, Xin G, et al. Enhanced effect of κ-carrageenan on TNBS-induced inflammation in mice. Int Immunopharmacol. 2016;39:218-28.
- Taché S, Peiffer G, Millet AS, et al. Carrageenan gel and aberrant crypt foci in the colon of conventional and human flora-associated rats. Nutr Cancer. 2000;37(2):193-8.
- Hehemann JH, Kelly AG, Pudlo NA, et al.Bacteria of the human gut microbiome catabolize red seaweed glycans with carbohydrate-active enzyme updates from extrinsic microbes. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012;109(48):19786-91.
- Langman JM, Rowland R, Vernon-Roberts B.Carrageenan colitis in the guinea pig: pathological changes and the importance of ascorbic acid deficiency in disease induction. Aust J Exp Biol Med Sci. 1985;63 ( Pt 5):545-53.
- Robertson WVB, Hxwett J, Herman C. The Relation of Ascorbic Acid to the Conversion of Proline to Hydroxyproline in the Synthesis of Collagen in the Carrageenan Granuloma*. The Journal of Biological Chemistry 1959; 234, 105-108.
- Australian Bureau off Statistics National Health Survey: First Results, 2014-15
- Tobacman JK. Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments. Environ Health Perspect. 2001; 109(10): 983–994.
- Choi HJ, Kim J, Park SH, et al. Pro-inflammatory NF-κB and early growth response gene 1 regulate epithelial barrier disruption by food additive carrageenan in human intestinal epithelial cells. Toxicol Lett. 2012;211(3):289-95.
- Fahoum L, Moscovici A, David S, et al.Digestive fate of dietary carrageenan: Evidence of interference with digestive proteolysis and disruption of gut epithelial function. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2017;61(3).