What is Carrageenan

by John Staughton (BASc, BFA) last updated -

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Consuming foods with carrageenan may have some health benefits, but it is important to understand the full impact of the ingredients you are eating.

What is Carrageenan?

Carrageenan is an extract from red seaweed, which can be boiled, filtered and then ground into a fine powder. This ingredient is commonly found in foods as an additive and filler, and it can serve several different purposes. Generally speaking, this extract is safe, when consumed in normal quantities. It is also vegan and vegetarian-friendly, as well as gluten-free, so it has seen a surge in popularity in recent years. You may also find carrageenan in your toothpaste, as it is a powerful, natural binding agent.

What is Carrageenan Used For?

The most common uses of carrageenan include its role in conventional medicine, as a food additive and in weight loss products, among others.

Carrageenan written on a mini blackboard with different fruit jellies placed below it

Carrageenan is a common food additive extracted from red seaweed. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Food Additive

This concentrated compound from red seaweed has been isolated and used for centuries in various cultures. As a binding agent, it is also popular in gluten-free foods, as it can help keep those foods together. It remains an important filler and food additive in many common products, including:

Weight Loss Products

Since this substance shows some evidence of being able to draw water out of the body, and into the colon, it is sometimes used as a laxative. This can also help people feel full, which may prevent overeating, and thus help with weight loss efforts.

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Traditional Medicine

Both in the past and in the present day, carrageenan is used in medicinal remedies for everything from bronchitis and constipation to peptic ulcers. While limited formal research has been done on this substance, there are numerous ways it can be used. Some choose to apply it topically or mixed with a carrier oil, to reduce inflammation and promote healing. Some people eat vegan and gluten-free foods very often, and this compound can help some of the peripheral symptoms of inflammation associated with those conditions.

Side Effects

Despite there being a good amount of anecdotal evidence to the efficacy of carrageenan, there are also some contraindications, including inflammation, a higher risk of certain cancers and allergic reactions, among others.

  • Inflammation: Although some claim that carrageenan can soothe inflammation, others say that it can cause it, both topically and gastrointestinally.
  • Gastrointestinal Issues: When an excessive amount of this substance is consumed, it can cause cramping, bloating, diarrhea and nausea, among other unwanted digestive effects.
  • Allergic Reaction: Some people experience allergic reactions when they are exposed to this powder, and while seaweed allergies are rare, they do exist. If you begin to have trouble breathing, or are experiencing swelling of any kind, seek medical attention.
  • Cancer Risk: There are some reports that consuming high levels of carrageenan can increase your risk of colon cancer; while another form of carrageenan, which is λ-carrageenan is generally considered safe.
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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer with English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (USA). He co-founded the literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and now serves as the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, a non-profit based in Denver, Colorado. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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