From Instagram to TikTok to podcasts, there’s a ton of information floating around about the ingredients found in many plant-based milks. There’s carrageenan, xanthan gum, lecithin and more, and they’re often framed as “scary” or “unhealthy,” which is a bit understandable in some regards. If you were to pull a plant-based milk from your pantry or refrigerator right now and look at the ingredient list, there’s a very strong chance you’d notice some additives and ingredients that you’re completely in the dark about.
But are these ingredients all that scary? Should we avoid them for the sake of our health?
Given that most of us have little understanding of what the heck carrageenan and other plant-based milk ingredients even are, it feels like a good time to get to the bottom of it. Here’s what you need to know about some common ingredients found in non-dairy milks.
Carrageenan is a food additive made from red seaweed that’s often used in almond milk and other plant-based milks as a thickener, emulsifier or stabilizer. One huge reason carrageenan is used so frequently in these products is that it’s plant-based, whereas gelatin and many other thickeners are made from animal products.
Is carrageenan safe to consume?
Carrageenan comes in two forms — food grade (undegraded) and degraded. Undegraded carrageenan is FDA approved for human consumption and said to be safe for food use, whereas degraded carrageenan is not approved for use in food and has been shown to be carcinogenic in studies on animals.
There’s some controversy around the health effects of both forms of carrageenan. Research shows that even food-grade carrageenan can cause potential side effects like inflammation, bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, intestinal ulcers and other gastrointestinal problems. It’s challenging to conduct this type of study on humans for a number of reasons, so most studies of carrageenan are on animals.
“Some researchers believe that potential adverse gastrointestinal side effects could be linked to the consumption of carrageenan, even the food-safe kind, as it breaks down during digestion,” said registered dietitian Maddie Pasquariello. “That said, as a registered dietitian, I have not seen any conclusive evidence that would lead me to eliminate this ingredient completely from my diet.” She adds that we may never know with 100% certainty if carrageenan is harmful, due to research constraints.
It’s hard to say whether carrageenan is safe or unsafe, and some registered dietitians recommend avoiding it entirely. People who tend to experience gastrointestinal symptoms after consuming products with carrageenan may feel better eliminating this ingredient from their diet, or consuming it in moderation, Pasquariello said.
“Many consumers fear additives in food, but the truth is, these additives serve a very functional purpose not only to improve the taste of our food but to also make our food safe for consumption.”
“Natural flavors” is a somewhat vague term that describes ingredients that are derived from plant and animal products, such as from spices, fruits, vegetables, herbs, dairy products, meat and eggs, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Natural flavors are added to non-dairy milks to enhance their taste. Often, they’re added to make the milk taste more like the drink’s base ingredient — such as almonds, soy or oats — or to give it a distinct flavor profile, registered dietitians explained.
Are natural flavors safe to consume?
Natural flavors are regulated and said to be safe for consumption, but they’re not necessarily “healthier” or safer than artificial flavors, said registered dietitian Rachel Fine. It’s important to understand that the term “natural” can be a bit misleading here. Natural flavors aren’t necessarily ingredients that come straight from the earth. Sure, the ingredient may be derived from a plant or animal product, but it can later be synthetically enhanced with preservatives and other ingredients.
Because natural flavors are so vaguely defined, someone buying a plant-based milk may not know exactly what is in the natural flavors that have been added. Thus, it’s hard to say whether or not they’ll experience side effects after consumption, said registered dietitian Shirlene Reid. She goes on to explain that if the natural flavor doesn’t contain a common allergen like eggs or milk, food manufacturers aren’t required by the FDA to reveal what’s in their natural flavors.
Think of it like this: “If you go on Silk’s website and look at the ingredient list for their original almond milk, they only list the term natural flavors as an ingredient, not the actual ingredient,” Reid said. “Until the FDA requires manufacturers to list the specific ingredients of natural flavors, there is no way of knowing whether the flavoring contains chemicals that are harmful for human consumption.”
If you read the ingredient lists on your plant-based milks, you’ve probably come across guar gum or other gums like xanthan, gellan or locust bean. These gums are added to non-dairy milks as stabilizers and emulsifiers, often helping to mix or thicken things up. “These bind ingredients, keeping them emulsified and suspended,” Fine explained. “Some gums, like xanthan gum, help to thicken the milk for a desirable consistency.”
If you buy a plant-based milk that’s made with only a nut or seed and water (meaning, no other additives), you may notice a separation between a liquid layer and a more pulpy layer at the bottom. “Since nuts and seeds contain fat, when blended and combined with water, the two don’t want to mix, so natural separation will occur,” Pasquariello said.
Another interesting thickener you’ll see often is oil ― sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, canola oil, coconut oil or palm oil, and more ― which is used for its emulsifying properties.
Are these gums safe to consume?
The registered dietitians we spoke to say the short answer is yes. But some people may experience side effects like an upset stomach (especially with guar gum and xanthan gum), depending on how much they consume. A recent study in the journal Nature Microbiology found that xanthan gum may alter the gut microbiome in ways that could potentially affect intestinal health and caloric intake.
Lecithin is an additive commonly used in commercial food production. It’s added to plant-based milks as an emulsifier, to help combine different ingredients like oats, nuts or seeds with water. You may see it on an ingredient list as sunflower lecithin or soy lecithin.
Is lecithin safe to consume?
Studies show that consuming lecithin is safe, and some people even take it as a supplement. But there are some potential downsides to this additive. “Depending on the quantity consumed, lecithin can lead to adverse gastrointestinal side effects, like diarrhea, nausea and stomach pain,” Pasquariello said. Though she pointed out that this side effect is mainly seen when lecithin is consumed as a supplement.
“Very few side effects have been seen in scientific literature when consuming food amounts — such as the amount found in your plant-based milk,” she told us.
Tips To Keep In Mind While Shopping For Plant-Based Milks
Navigating the U.S. food system is challenging, including shopping for plant-based milks. But registered dietitians have some advice to hopefully make things a bit easier.
Pay attention to ingredients. “Many people who are buying plant-based milks, who do not have an allergy to regular milk, are buying it because they may think they are getting a healthier form of milk,” Reid said. “It’s important to know what is actually in the milk before you buy it to prevent future health problems.”
Go for products with simple ingredient lists, if that’s important to you. “If it matters to you that your plant-based milk is made from the simplest ingredients possible, and you have the ability to access such products, you may wish to buy brands that list only two to three ingredients (like nuts or seeds or oats, plus water and sea salt),” Pasquariello advised.
Just because an ingredient is unfamiliar doesn’t necessarily mean it’s harmful to your health. “Many consumers fear additives in food, but the truth is, these additives serve a very functional purpose not only to improve the taste of our food but to also make our food safe for consumption,” Fine said. “Despite common myths, these ingredients have been thoroughly tested for safety.”
Know that for the most part, plant-based milks are safe to consume. “If you can’t access plant-based milk made with only a few ingredients, it’s not something to worry significantly about,” Pasquariello said.