Cutting to the chase: It can be worrying when you hear bad things about foods and ingredients in foods. So, is Carrageenan bad for you? The processed product which is used as a stabilizer in many foods can cause complications such as Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD), gastrointestinal inflammation, ulcers, leaky gut, and it has even been suggested that it can be a cause of colon cancer!
But this has sparked a lot of conversation that has pulled the humble sea moss into the muddy waters of the Carrageenan debate without any true merit. To set the record straight, there is a big difference between Irish Sea Moss as a whole food, and Carrageenan as an extract from seaweed. So in this article I will help paint a picture of what Irish Sea Moss is, and look closer at the question ‘Is Carrageenan bad for you?’
What is Irish Sea Moss?
A widely used type of seaweed, Irish Sea Moss, or just Sea Moss (depending upon which part of the world you are from) has been known by different names. Some call the Chondrus Crispus species of seaweed Irish Sea Moss, and others call the Eucheuma Cottonii species Irish Sea Moss. But if you were to be precise, the accuracy of this could be called into question.
Chondrus Crispus is a species of red seaweed that grows in cooler rocky waters. When compared to Eucheuma Cottonii it has a flatter looking leafier appearance, while Eucheuma Cottonii can look more twig-like and grows in warmer waters. Eucheuma Cottonii is what most in the Caribbean, and Chondrus Crispus in the Atlantic would call Irish Sea Moss.
Chondrus Crispus has long been a part of the diets of people in these areas for generations. Responsible for helping the body with many different functions, sea moss was looked to as a natural remedy for treating aliments such as:
- Mucus build up
- Bladder disorders
- Intestinal disorders
- Glandular problems
- Lung difficulties
- Thyroid conditions
- Swollen joints
- Influenza, and
As we have become more and more aware of the benefits of seaweed as a wholefood, the nutritional value of this superfood is gaining more and more attention around the world. Chondrus Crispus is known to be high in:
- Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
- Vitamin B9 (Folate)
- Potassium, and
Chondrus Crispus typically consists of approximately 15% mineral compounds and 10% protein, and is capable of holding between twenty and one hundred times its weight in water. This is attributed to the polysaccharides housed within the structure of the seaweed. When washing and soaking dried sea moss, these are the parts that can initially give off a sea-like odor.
Eucheuma Cottonii is very similar to Chondrus Crispus in the manner by which it absorbs mineral elements, macro elements and trace elements from the sea. This is like nothing that is able to be cultivated and harvested on land in terrestrial plants.
Eucheuma Cottonii is sometimes referred to as Sea Birds Nest, particularly in Asia. Almost confusingly, this too is known by many throughout Asia as Irish Sea Moss. This common recognition, or label, applied to Eucheuma Cottonii in this part of the world by merchants has meant that Chondrus Crispus has been sold as Eucheuma Cottonii, and vice versa.
Putting that element of confusion aside with regards to the botanical names of species, both carry extremely similar benefits as the other when it comes to their use as a wholefood. What matters here is that you are getting a whole seaweed, and not a highly refined powder (which is how Carrageenan is normally sold).
So, is Carrageenan bad for you?
Recent findings have suggested that Carrageenan, as a refined product made from specific seaweed, can cause irritation in the bowel. Some have also gone as far as to suggest that Carrageenan may be carcinogenic. This would reasonably cause alarm bell to ring for anyone, which is why we are raking a closer look at the situation.
If you hadn’t already noticed, we love what sea moss has to offer, and can see that there are some clear misunderstandings applied here. In the extensive report “Connecting the Dots: Corporate Influence at the USDA’s National Organic Program” the Cornucopia Institute openly criticized manufacturers of food products over their use of Carrageenan in what were supposed to be organic foods. The first lines of this report spell out the tone of the paper by titling it the Organic Watergate.
This type of practice is not uncommon in large organisations. In Australia we have seen the misappropriation of food labeling standards by large retailers to the point that customers had boycotted entire lines in the stores. Carrageenan, displayed on food labeling as an additive under the number ‘407’ or code ‘E407’ is used as a thickening or stabilizing agent is not the whole seaweed. Additive E407 has been linked to a range of issues outside of the Cornucopia Institute’s report.
Used in everything from ice cream, to soy milk, to meat, Carrageenan can be purchased by the ton from manufacturers in China through wholesalers. Conjecture around the real problem coming from degraded Carrageenan , a low molecular weighted product, and not from undegraded Carrageenan was refuted within this report. The degraded or undegraded state of the Carrageenan was reported to be, more or less, irrelevant when looking at the effects.
A highly politicized situation, as a result, has since unfolded. This has left many people wondering if they should avoid sea moss altogether. So what do I think?
I’m not inclined to agree. I don’t think there is valid reason to avoid sea moss altogether based on this misunderstanding – after all Carrageenan and Irish Sea Moss aren’t the same thing.
As I suggested earlier, to say that Carrageenan is the same as Irish Sea Moss is comparable to saying that high fructose syrup is the same as organic corn. It’s a bit like saying that fresh raspberries are the same as raspberry cordial.
Refined Substances vs. Whole Foods
Refining a substance from primary source does not mean that it is likely to be more effective in higher concentrations. The whole food carries the volume of minerals and vitamins wrapped up inside specific structures that enable them to get to where they are needed in the body. This is Nature’s clever gift.
For example, there’s no need for us to extract the essence of an orange down to simply the ascorbic acid. There are other minerals, vitamins, and sugars that allow the vitamin c to make it all the way to where it is needed, intact, to be more effective that 1000mg concentrated into a pill.
Consider this; you can get vitamin B from fresh, natural sources, or, you can consume a synthetic thiamin hydrochloride, vitamin B1, which has been made from coal tar. Anything made from coal tar is not my first pick.
A woman could certainly be at high risk of her baby being born with various defects if she was to have too much synthetic Vitamin A in supplement form during her pregnancy. However, consuming foods which are rich in natural sources of Vitamin A are perfectly safe. To consume the volume of wholefoods that are high in Vitamin A to have the same effect as a synthetic, high concentration, supplement is a super-human effort.
To allow sea moss to be caught up in the confusion around the Carrageenan discussion is irrational. Millions of people have benefited from taking sea moss in it wholefood form for hundreds of years, and they will continue to do for hundreds more. Consuming foods that have these nutrients in their natural balance is healthier, and safer than the higher concentrations manufactured outside of nature.
Is Sea Moss Safe For Everybody?
By no means does the information here, nor my opinion on Irish Sea Moss, extend to the point where I would say that a person who is allergic, or has particular sensitivities to exposure to sea moss should take it.
Like peanuts, gluten, avocado, lactose, or any other substance that someone has an allergy to, you need to know your body and only give it what it needs. Keep away from anything that you have reactions to. If you do have a reaction to something, you should seek medical assistance immediately.
Typically, very few people have reactions to sea moss, and the number of people who consume it on a daily basis indicates that it is safe to consume. The reasons for consuming sea moss include:
- Improving general health
- Improving reproductive health and functioning
- Losing weight, and
- Seeking relief from a range of aliments
If you find that you have any doubt about your understanding of the safety of sea moss, then I would suggest that you keep to the cautious side of the beach until you understand the topic further. My only request with regard to this is that you do your own research and learn more before deciding either way. If it doesn’t feel right for you, don’t do it.
Keeping a clear mind when it comes to the topic of Carrageenan, which has been highly processed from seaweed, and sea moss, as a wholefood is reasonable. These aren’t the same thing. Is Carrageenan bad for you? I would say that it should be avoided in it’s refined form as much as possible.