There's a good chance you eat foods that contain carrageenan. But, beware—this common ingredient might impair your sports performance and cause long-term health problems.
What Is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is a food additive derived from red seaweed. It's a binder and thickener used to improve texture and stability, often found in dairy products and dairy alternatives such as almond milk and yogurt. The FDA classifies carrageenan as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), meaning that the additive is considered safe to consume.
The Potential Dangers of Carrageenan
Yes, the FDA approves the inclusion of carrageenan, but this does not guarantee that it's safe to consume. Recently, the FDA admitted that they are unaware of the potential side effects of many additives and chemicals found in food. "We simply do not have the information to vouch for the safety of many of these chemicals," said Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for food, as reported by The Washington Post.
After a review of 140 studies on carrageenan, Dr. Joanne Tobacman, associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, suggested that the safety of carrageenan should be reconsidered.
She explained that a portion of carrageenan degrades during the manufacturing process and via digestion into a low-molecular weight variant. Degraded carrageenan is nearly universally known as a carcinogen—a cancer-causing compound. In 1982, the International Agency for Research on Cancer officially classified it as such.
According to Dr. Tobacman, the average person consumes about 10 mg of degraded carrageenan each day, 70 times the amount considered safe for consuming pesticides. She said, "Studies by carrageenan manufacturers have shown even higher amounts of low-molecular weight carrageenan in food-grade carrageenan." The FDA sought to decrease degraded carrageenan exposure in 1972, but the initiative never came to fruition.
In addition, carrageenan is known to cause inflammation. "In thousands of experiments in mammals and human cells performed over several decades, exposure to carrageenan predictably causes inflammation and has been used to test effectiveness of anti-inflammatory medications," said Dr. Tobacman. "Inflammation is clearly associated with many diseases, including arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, vascular disease and cancer."
And the inflammation risk is not limited to degraded carrageenan. According to Dr. Tobacman, "inflammation from carrageenan is caused not only by low-molecular weight carrageenan. The basic molecular structure of carrageenan is immunogenic (i.e., it produces an immune response), so any amount of carrageenan, degraded or undegraded, may be harmful."
The Risks for Athletes
No one wants cancer, and by avoiding carrageenan, you may improve your chances of staying cancer-free later in life. But that's in the long term and will likely not affect your athletic career. Your immediate cause for concern is carrageenan's penchant for promoting inflammation.
Inflammation is part of the body's natural healing process. If your body is injured or damaged, it sends extra blood and fluid to the area to promote healing. Playing sports and working out put stress on the body and cause inflammation, even if you don't have an acute injury.
This is OK to an extent. However, it's best to consume foods that reduce inflammation; eating carrageenan-laden foods makes it worse. Dr. Tobacman said, "Carrageenan causes inflammation, so if individuals want to reduce inflammatory reactions, it is a good idea to avoid carrageenan-containing products."
Excessive inflammation can impair recovery after a workout. It contributes to delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), debilitating muscle soreness typically experienced 24 to 72 hours after an intense workout. It also is related to rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of lean muscle—not ideal if you are training to get bigger and stronger.
What Should You Do?
Many studies point to the risks of consuming carrageenan, but not all agree that it's dangerous.
Proponents of the additive point to many studies that have not been replicated in humans. They generally think that carrageenan safely passes through the digestive system without causing harm.
Many nutritionists and dietitians take a cautious approach. In an article featured in Today's Dietitian, registered dietitians Dr. Joy Dubost and Lona Sandon agree that carrageenan is OK to consume, but they advise against consuming it on a case-by-case basis.
In response to consumer demand, WhiteWave Foods recently announced it will remove carrageenan from its Silk and Horizon brands by the end of 2015. Other brands, such as Stonyfield Farm and Organic Valley, have also removed carrageenan from their products.
Should you eliminate carrageenan from your diet? That's for you to decide. If the thought of eating something that has a chance of being unsafe concerns you, make sure to check your food labels.
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