Why Care About Carrageenan?
Ever see that big C-word when scanning through a label at the grocery store? For us vegans, this C-word pops up a lot, and I’ve been wondering exactly what Carrageenan is lately.
Basically, it’s seaweed.
Sounds harmless right? Not necessarily, but first a history lesson. This big C-word has been used for centuries, and recipes to make its gelatinous food additive form can be found in Diderot’s Encyclopedie dating all the way back to 18th century France. The earliest reported uses of the stuff as a food additive date back to 600 B.C. in China, but it didn’t become a commonly used additive until the 1930′s. Today, most of the world’s carrageenan (about 80%) is harvested in the Philippines.
Today it’s used as an alternative to gelatin which we all know is both cruel and well, gross, as it comes from the hooves, tendons, ligaments, and bones of animals. You can find the stuff as a thickener in everything from your favorite brand of vegan milk (I make my own-recipe here!) to that coconut ice cream I love so much. (Found a new brand that’s additive free! Expect a post on the stuff soon!) It’s used as a thickening agent and also a stabilizer, keeping that almondy goodness in place when you buy your beloved carton at the co-op.
So far so good, huh? Well…
Carrageenan has been cited as a key source of inflammation and high levels of it are even associated with certain types of cancers. (Check out this article on the results of carrageenan in animal testing)
So is the big C-word safe?
Like many other food additives, carrageenan has been deemed safe for consumption in small quantities. As it’s in many process foods (even the good organic ones!) just limiting your intake of these foods will limit your intake of additives like carrageenan.
As vegans we’re already very limited in the number of products we can purchase and eat, and even more limited if we’re interested in issues like food politics and food justice. (Hellloooo… cough cough… Just give “food politics” a search in my search engine to the right and see what you come up with… ) So keeping your eyes peeled for carrageenan at the store can limit your options even more. So what’s a mindful vegan to do? I say keep reading those labels, just like you always do! Just be conscious of the other things that are in that vegan product that might be lurking around the proverbial corner.
Does this mean you should forgo your favorite vegan ice cream the next time it’s on sale? No, just maybe budget your processed foods intake for that day, and keep the carrageenan low, just to be on the safe side.
But here’s my tofu (saying beef is just a little weird, don’t you think?) with carrageenan:
As someone who is concerned with not only the exploitation of animals but also the exploitation of human beings as workers in the food industry I am worried about the practices surrounding the farming, processing, and production of this food product. Even though the Philippines was once a U.S. territory, it doesn’t mean that the working conditions, laws, and expectations are the same there. (Even in the U.S. they are bad for many workers, especially those in the food industry!) I just can’t say with confidence that I am comfortable supporting an industry that is so veiled in scrutiny and secrecy. (Not only do many people not know about carrageenan, but it’s industrial production methods are even more ambiguous.) Personally, I am going to continue my research (if you’re doing the same, here‘s a great place to start) and be more mindful of the additives that are in the products that I buy. (Like I said, new ice cream brand! And I already make my own almond milk and most baked goods) This is just a good reminder to spring for homemade versus that store bought goodie, no matter how lovely the carrageenan laced morsel might be.