What is Carrageenan (And Why Should Alpha Gals Avoid It)?

Drying fresh carrageenan seaweed

People living with alpha-gal syndrome know to avoid animal products like beef, pork, lamb, and bison. But did you know that a specific plant also contains the alpha-gal epitope that can cause a reaction in some people with alpha-gal syndrome?

The information provided on this site is based on my personal experience living with alpha-gal syndrome. I cite and link to expert sources as often as possible, but because I have an MBA (and not an MD), nothing published on this site should be perceived as medical advice as I’m clearly lacking the letters required on my diploma to be a physician.

Before Saint Patrick chased all the snakes in Ireland into the Atlantic Ocean, Irish cooks added an extract from red seawood to thicken milk-based drinks and plump up pudding. But the plant-based thickening and gelling agent has been controversial for several decades.

    

A clump of carrageenan, an edible red seaweed also known as Irish moss

What is Carrageenan?

Carrageenan is an extract from an edible red seaweed commonly known as Irish moss. It grows wild along the rocky Atlantic coast of Ireland and the British Isles. Here in the United States, carrageenan is a common food additive used to emulsify and thicken foods since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1961. And because it is plant-based, carrageenan is often used in vegan versions of cheese, yogurt, and chocolate milk. 

Fun Fact: Unlike unprocessed edible seaweed and algae – like kelp and nori – carrageenan has no nutritional value. 

Sage Advice: Like carrageenan, nori is made from red algae and may contain the alpha-gal epitope, so watch for any reaction when you eat sushi wrapped in seaweed.

Is Carrageenan Bad for You?

Although there is not a lot of human clinical data available, scientists have studied the consequences of carrageenan consumption in humans for several decades . The FDA has proclaimed carrageenan to be safe for human consumption and allows it to be included in organic foods.

However, negative gastrointestinal effects have been discovered in animal studies conducted with rats, guinea pigs, and monkeys. Some scientists have stated that carrageenan is associated with digestive tract issues like inflammation, ulcerations, and colon cancer. Other equally respected scientists dispute these findings and present data that shows carrageenan to be a safe food additive.

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Bowl of yogurt on a wooden table with a checkered napkin

Should You Avoid Carrageenan If You Have Alpha-Gal Syndrome?

Even if you’re not concerned about possible adverse effects of consuming carrageenan, you should avoid carrageenan if you have alpha-gal syndrome. Although carrageenan is a plant-based ingredient, it contains the alpha-gal epitope, which can cause a reaction in some people with alpha-gal syndrome. And, because people with an allergy to mammalian products are more likely to consume alternative dairy products that commonly contain carrageenan, they are at particularly high risk.

A glass of soy milk with soybeans

What Foods Contain Carrageenan?

Because carrageenan is used to thicken, tenderize, and preserve foods, you’re likely to find it on the ingredient labels of:

  • Processed dairy products, including chocolate milk, coffee creamer, cottage cheese, ice cream, ricotta cheese, pudding, whipped cream, and yogurt
  • Non-dairy products such as vegan cheese and vegan yogurt
  • Nut milks and other non-dairy milks including almond milk, coconut milk, hemp milk, rice milk, and soy milk
  • Otherwise alpha-gal-safe meat products like turkey bacon, chicken sausage, and poultry cold cuts, where it’s used as a binder, and rotisserie chicken, where it’s injected into the bird to tenderize the meat and help it retain its juices
  • Jelly, where it’s used as a vegan alternative to gelatin
  • Other prepared foods, including canned soup, microwavable dishes, and frozen pizza

Related Article: Best Milk Alternative for Alpha-Gal Syndrome

A bottle of aloe vera gel

Carrageenan can also be found in non-food products like cosmetics, toothpaste, chewable vitamins, and pharmaceuticals. I was surprised to learn that can be found in aloe vera gel!

On a positive note, several companies are replacing carrageenan with alternative thickening agents. Silk, a manufacturer of plant-based products like almond milk and dairy-free yogurt, has removed carrageenan from most of its products. But not the soy creamer, so try this creamer or this creamer instead.

And while some alpha gals cannot consume traditional dairy products, if you’re one of the lucky ones who can tolerate it, Stonyfield Organic has also removed carrageenan from most of its products.  

Carrageenan in Kirkland Soy Milk at Costco

How to Identify Carrageenan on an Ingredient List

The FDA has proclaimed carrageenan to be safe for human consumption, including in foods labeled organic. But although food manufacturers are required to identify carrageenan in their products, it’s not always spelled out in the ingredients list.

As you navigate life with alpha-gal syndrome, don’t overlook carrageenan listed on ingredient panels by one of its other names. A few other names for carrageenan include:

  • Carrageenan gum
  • Carrageenin
  • Irish moss
  • Irish moss extract
  • Red algae
  • Red seaweed extract (Rhodophyceae)
  • Sea moss
  • Seaweed extract
  • Vegetable gelatin

But remember that truly natural unprocessed seaweed and algae products are much different than processed carrageenan and generally safe for alpha gals to eat.

Other Names for Carrageenan

Alternatives to Carrageenan That are Safe for Alpha Gals

Thickening agents are often required to make the spoonful of jelly that you spread across your toast in the morning and the scoop of vegan ice cream you enjoy at the end of the day. While carrageenan can cause a reaction in people with alpha-gal syndrome, you can look for these alternatives when reading food labels:

  • Alginate, derived from brown algae
  • Gellan gum, which grows naturally on water lilies
  • Guar gum, made from guar beans, a type of legume
  • Gum arabic, derived from certain trees
  • Locust bean gum, also known as carob gum, which is extracted from carob seed
  • Sunflower lecithin, a natural fat emulsifier derived from sunflowers

Another plant-based thickener, agar (also known as agar-agar), is made from red algae and may contain the alpha-gal epitope. And, please note that some alpha gals have expressed a sensitivity to gums like the ones listed above.  

Sage Advice: This buyer’s guide, published by The Cornucopia Institute, is a tremendously helpful resource for alpha gals wanting to avoid carrageenan.

A few recommendations on how to replace products with carrageenan in your diet

Do You Avoid Carrageenan?

In what foods have you found carrageenan hiding? Have you identified an alternative food product? Are there any other common foods containing carrageenan that I missed above? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

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