What Is Carrageenan? Its Uses, Benefits And Side Effects

Amritha K

Carrageenan is an additive, made from parts of various red algae or seaweeds. It is used to thicken, emulsify, and preserve foods and drinks. Also called Irish moss, the natural ingredient used for medicines. Used to treat coughs, bronchitis, tuberculosis, and intestinal problems, as well as peptic ulcers, there have been several contradictions with respect to the usage and application of the seaweed .

Some suggest that carrageenan can cause inflammation, digestive problems, such as bloating and irritable bowel disease (IBD). And in severe cases, colon cancer as well. It is also used as a stabiliser in medications, toothpaste and food products. Carrageenan is also asserted to be beneficial for effective weight loss, however, more studies have to be conducted on that .

Carrageenan is nutritionally neutral and has an extremely high content of fibre, making it indigestible by the human body. A group of similar sulphated polysaccharides, its ability to bind to protein is what makes it useful in meat and dairy products . There are three basic types: Iota Carrageenan, Kappa Carrageenan and Lambda Carrageenan, which all have different uses and potential risks pertaining to it.

The food-grade carrageenan is extracted from red seaweed and processed with alkaline substances. Degraded carrageenan or poligeenan is unsafe for consumption, as it can trigger the development of gut tumours and ulcers, and colon cancer .

Uses Of Carrageenan

The seaweed extract is used for two purposes, conventional medicine and food additive .

As a conventional medicine, carrageenan is used in solutions that are used in the treatment of cough, cold, intestinal problems etc. It helps reduce pain and swelling as well as functions as a bulk laxative and treats peptic ulcers .

As a food additive, carrageenan does not add any nutritional value or flavour. The unique chemical structure of the seaweed makes it an effective binder, stabiliser and thickening agent. It is commonly used in toothpaste .

Health Benefits Of Carrageenan

1. Boosts gut health

According to a study conducted in 2015 on the effects of carrageenan, it was asserted that it may have the ability to influence the development of beneficial microbial communities in the digestive tract, which in turn can improve your overall immune system as well. It is also asserted to possess the ability to cure stomach ulcers caused by alcohol .

2. Reduces high cholesterol levels

Carrageenan has been found to have a positive impact on managing one's cholesterol levels. When incorporated in your daily diets, carrageenan may aid in reducing the cholesterol
and lipid levels. It can also be used in the prevention of atherosclerosis as well as for cardiovascular disease .

3. Treats cold and flu

Some studies have pointed out that carrageenan gel is capable of killing off or preventing the viruses that cause flu and cold. It works by preventing the viruses from attaching to the nasal wall, thereby restricting its ability to propagate . The antioxidative property of the seaweed help prevent damages to your cells as well.

4. Improves digestion

Carrageenan can be beneficial in helping your digestive system by supporting regular bowel movements . Drinking the solution of seaweed (boil the seaweed in milk or water) can help improve your digestion and bowel movements. It also helps manage stomach irritation and discomfort.

Side Effects Of Carrageenan

A number of studies have been conducted on understanding the negative impact of carrageenan, and it is as follows :

  • Bloating
  • Glucose intolerance
  • Inflammation
  • Food allergies
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Colon cancer
  • Large bowel ulceration
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Foetal toxicity and birth defects
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Glucose intolerance
  • Insulin resistance
  • Liver cancer
  • Immune suppression

Carrageenan can cause severe inflammation, which can lead to inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, tendonitis, chronic cholecystitis, or gallbladder inflammation .

Some alternatives suggested in place of carrageenan are locust bean gum, gum arabic, alginate, guar gum and xanthan gum , .

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