Question #1 comes from Toni. Toni asks,
I have a question on the So Delicious brand unsweetened coconut milk recommended in the protein smoothies. One of the ingredients is carrageenan. I’ve read articles that it is bad for the digestive system, and I am having trouble finding a similar coconut milk that does not contain carrageenan. If we are only having a cup or two a day in our smoothies, is it better to find another brand which has four times the calories and does not have this thickener?
Hi Toni! This is a question I hear a lot amongst the nutrition community. Previously, there was a large amount of confusion about carrageenan because much of the research on the topic failed to clearly label the type of carrageenan they were using. As such, many people passively reviewing the research noticed that a substance called “carrageenan” caused cancer (in rats) quite frequently, and erroneously came to the conclusion that all carrageenan has this problem.
This particular problem has since been cleared up. The carrageenan which consistently causes cancer is now referred to as “poligeenan” or “degraded carrageenan”, and it is a very different substance than the type of carrageenan which is used to thicken our coconut milk!
Beyond cancer, some research on the safe food-grade carrageenan has shown that it may increase inflammation in the GI tract, which I think is Toni’s main concern. This question is less clearly answered because there isn’t a ton of research on the topic at this point. The research which is out there, though, doesn’t suggest that this is a common problem.
One issue with much of the research demonstrating gut inflammation is that the dose which is administered is ridiculously high, especially compared to what we would realistically consume. One study had rats consuming 27.4 grams per kilogram, which would be the equivalent of an adult human eating over 5 lbs of carrageenan every day!
Even studies which used more reasonable amounts still used quantities in excess of an [equivalent] 25 – 50 grams per day, which is significantly more than the amount used in any food product. While I couldn’t find exact numbers, carrageenan is technically a type of fiber (a combination of soluble and insoluble), and you can therefore see what the potential maximum amount is in a given product. In So Delicious coconut milk, there is 1 gram of dietary fiber, so the carrageenan plus guar gum combined cannot be greater than about 1 gram.
One possible stipulation I would have is in the case of diagnosed inflammatory GI disease, such as ulcerative colitis, celiac, or Crohn’s disease. In these cases, it might be worth a try to eliminate carrageenan to see if you experience any improvement in symptoms. Since these diseases predispose the individual towards inflammation of the gut, they are already much more susceptible to inflammation-induced injury. Even here, though, I would be surprised if carrageenan exacerbated symptoms in more than a handful of individuals.
For the rest without inflammatory bowel diseases, the small amount of carrageenan in coconut milk (or any food product) is, by itself, very unlikely to cause inflammation. It will simply pass through us, like most of the rest of the fiber in our diet!
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