Can Your Organic Yogurt or Almond Milk Give Your Cancer?
December 31st, 2014 by Holly Cornish
As a regular reader of this letter, you’re probably well aware that avoiding food additives like MSG and aspartame can help prevent certain types of cancer.
I have another one to add to your list. This “natural” food additive has, surprisingly, been in use for thousands of years as a thickener. But in this case, our ancient ancestors got it wrong. . .and the modern food industry is getting it wrong, times ten. . .
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Carrageenan is commonly used in dressings, condiments, low carb and low fat products, dairy products and dairy substitutes, and sadly, baby formula. And even eating a strict organic or vegetarian diet isn’t enough to avoid it … it’s hiding there, too.
It has been on health researchers’ watch list since the 1960s when they noticed the additive was causing gastrointestinal disease in lab animals, including ulcerative colitis, intestinal lesions, and colon cancer.1
“Processed Eucheuma seaweed”
Carrageenan is a food additive that stabilizes, thickens, adds texture, and keeps liquids from separating. It has no nutritional value — it’s an indigestible polysaccharide extracted from edible red seaweeds.
Because it’s indigestible, it’s supposed to be “inert” in the human body and pass through harmlessly. But since scientists picked up on the potential danger nearly 60 years ago, there has been conflicting evidence, old and poorly designed animal studies, and funding biases that have muddied the waters and made the truth near impossible to find.
Even worse, the unclear research results have misled both the average consumer and policymakers like the FDA to inaction. Everywhere you turn, someone has a different opinion about whether carrageenan is dangerous or not.
In the past ten years, though, both animal and in vitro (test tube) studies on human cells are finally proving beyond doubt that carrageenan is indeed an additive we should all be concerned about.
Degraded vs. undegraded carrageenan
One of the reasons for so much confusion is the difference between “food-grade” carrageenan and the degraded form, called poligeenan, which is not approved for use in food.
Multiple animal studies have shown that poligeenan causes inflammation of the GI tract, higher rates of intestinal lesions, and even cancerous tumors.2 It’s even a “tumor activator” and used specifically in animal studies to induce inflammation and grow cancers as quickly as possible.
But, food manufacturers only use the safe, large molecule carrageenan, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
According to regulations, there can be no more than 5% degraded poligeenan in carrageenan for use in food. However, according to test results from Marinalg International, the trade group for carrageenan manufacturers, about two-thirds of the samples they tested had over 5% … with the highest level being 25% degraded poligeenan.3
So, despite regulations, dangerous, inflammatory poligeenan is still ending up in your yogurt or ice cream – and in other foods.
But it doesn’t end there.
Dr. Joanne Tobacman is a faculty member at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, and one of the foremost researchers on carrageenan and digestive health. She says that both forms of the additive are inflammatory. Undegraded carrageenan, that’s supposed to be safe, has also been shown to be carcinogenic in rats.4
This could be because carrageenan tends to degrade into poligeenan during digestion … making the entire “grade” system moot.5
Not only that, one mouse study showed that just 18 days of low exposure to carrageenan caused “profound” insulin resistance, a condition that can lead to diabetes and also increases risk for aggressive pancreatic cancer.4
Proof from human cells
Despite decades of confusing studies and the differing opinions of various boards, Dr. Tobacman has remained convinced that carrageenan, in both its forms, has serious consequences in the human body.
She now has some solid evidence. Two of her studies, published in 2012 and 2014, show exactly how carrageenan contributes to colon cancer.
First, it activates an inflammation loop that leads to increased production of a inflammatory protein called interleukin-8, then prolongs the activation in human colon cells for 24 hours after.6
To illustrate this, imagine you enjoy a yogurt every morning that contains carrageenan. You’d have non-stop inflammation in the lower digestive tract. And as you know, cancer thrives in inflamed environments.
Dr. Tobacman’s second study, published in 2014 in the Nutrition and Cancer journal, showed how carrageenan directly causes the growth of colon cancer. It appears that carrageenan activates what’s called the WnT signaling pathway, which has long been linked with cancer.7
Again, constant exposure to even low concentrations of carrageenan continually flips the switches of inflammation and WnT signaling — and creates the perfect setup for cancer growth.
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer and the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths. Perhaps carrageenan is one of the reasons?8
Are you ingesting enough
to make a difference?
Carrageenan may have once been a structural component of otherwise healthy seaweed … but it’s not healthy, especially at the rate we’re exposed to it.
Even though Europe banned carrageenan as an additive in baby food and formula in 1994, the American FDA has not. American babies are exposed to this carcinogen the moment mothers start to use store-bought formula. After that, carrageenan is hiding in plenty of other places.
Carrageenan is so pervasive because it’s cheap, binds easily to animal and plant proteins, and helps maintain the “mouth feel” of fat – one of the things that makes fat so appetizing.
To the shame of the health food industry, the substance is often found in almond, coconut and soy milk, soy products, chocolate, and vegetarian products. You’ll also see it in low sugar or low fat dairy products, where food processors employ it to make them taste “fuller,” and you’ll come across it in beverages like nutritional shakes, where it’s used to keep them from separating.
Estimates of daily carrageenan intake have ranged all over the place from 30mg to 327mg per person, per day.9 If I was a gambling man, I’d bet that with the growing popularity of low fat, low carb, low sugar, and dairy substitute products that are all expected to still taste like the real thing, the exposure rate is on the higher end of that range.
Regardless of how much carrageenan we’re eating, on average, the fact that so many people are exposed to carrageenan on a daily basis … sometimes for an entire lifespan … is concerning.
If all I knew was that carrageenan was an irritant to the gastrointestinal tract, that’d be reason enough for me to avoid it. But in a world where we’re bombarded by carcinogens from every angle, my conclusion is to avoid even the ones that we get in “tiny” amounts.
The sad part is that most companies could get rid of carrageenan entirely by adding “Shake Well” to their labels. There’s no benefit other than texture and convenience.
How to avoid carrageenan
The best way to avoid this and all other food additives is to prepare your own foods from organic, unprocessed ingredients. Don’t eat prepared and processed foods at all – even those found in so-called health food stores.
If you must eat prepared foods, the next best way to avoid carrageenan is to read labels carefully, including those on organic foods. Food companies are legally required to disclose it on the label.
However, like MSG and aspartame, carrageenan also hides behind other sneaky names:
You can also help get this carcinogen removed from our food supply … especially banned from baby formula. The National Organics Standards Board isn’t scheduled to vote on removing carrageenan from organic foods for another few years. However, you can still sign the Cornucopia Institute’s petition to the FDA. You can do that here.
On a final note, this research raises red flags about other indigestible polysaccharides used for the same reasons as carrageenan, like locust bean, xanthan, guar, and gellan gums. I’ll report back with what I find.
Lee Euler, Publisher