One of the most common additives you will find are gums, a class of ingredients that gives processed foods a creamier, more consistent and thicker texture. Look in your kitchen and you are sure to find one or more of these in your protein powder, nut milk, yogurt, or other products: cellulose gum, guar gum, carrageenan and xanthan gum. This is especially the case for low-fat foods, which would otherwise have a runny unpleasant texture.
Safety of gums? Although gums are poorly tested, they are naturally derived and generally speaking likely safer than some other additives. However, they are not without controversy, especially regarding carrageenan.
Food-grade Carrageenan. Carrageenan is simply an extract from a red seaweed. Food grade carrageenan, the one we eat, is processed with an alkali. It has been shown to cause gastrointestinal ulcerations, inflammation and colon cancer in studies done on rats.
Degraded Carrageenan (Poligeenan). When carrageenan is processed using acids instead of alkali it becomes a degraded form known as poligeenan. Poligeenan is an acknowledged potent inflammatory agent that is actually used in rat studies to induce inflammation so that anti-inflammatory drugs can be tested.
What can we conclude from this? There are two theories as to why food grade carrageenan seems to have the same inflammatory properties as poligeenan. One theory is that our stomach acids may degrade food grade carrageenan into a similar form to poligeenan. The other theory is that food grade carrageenan is contaminated with poligeenan (the degraded form). Certainly contaminants have been found.
My bottom line. I do not recommend carrageenan to infants or persons with a pre-existing gastrointestinal issues or a family history of gastrointestinal disease. For everyone else I would at least avoid consuming these gums on a daily basis. My protein powders don’t contain carrageenan or any gums for that matter, nor does my particular nut milk. Be a smart shopper and read your ingredients!
The Confident Food Shopper: The guide to Food Labels and Fables by Dr. Thalia Charney, ND (inactive)
Carrageenan: How a “Natural” Food Additive is making us sick. A Report by The Cornucopia Institute | March 2013