If you have a tendency to inspect food labels, there is a good chance you have noticed an ingredient called carrageenan.
Carrageenan is a seaweed extract that has many uses in the foods we eat every day. Much like flour or starch, it can be used to thicken foods such as gravy. It prevents separation (think almond milk) by binding ingredients together, improves texture (it’s used in ice cream to prevent ice crystals from forming), and helps low-fat foods, such as yogurt, taste just as good as the full-fat version. In infant formula, carrageenan suspends the nutrients so that babies get the nutrients they need.
On a nutritional level, carrageenan is relatively neutral. Since it is mostly fiber, it is indigestible in the human body. Thus, carrageenan is used to enhance your food experience without having a negative impact on your diet. Better yet, new research suggests that while carrageenan does not contain any vitamins or minerals, there may be other, lesser-known health benefits associated with this common ingredient.
Below we look at five ways that one of the world’s most popular food additives might be providing you with formally unrecognized health benefits.
Improved Gut Health
Results from a 2015 study demonstrate a number of prebiotic effects associated with carrageenan consumption. Carrageenan, then, may positively influence the development of beneficial microbial communities in the digestive tract. This can lead to enhanced gut health and improved immune responses. A separate study has also shown that carrageenan may protect the intestinal lining from being corroded by alcohol, making it a possible defense against stomach ulcers.
Studies suggest that carrageenan may exhibit antioxidant activity, meaning that it neutralizes free radicals, which can cause significant damage in the body if left unchecked. Free radicals have been repeatedly linked to a number of health issues (including diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, age-related eye disease, and even cancer), making the antioxidant properties of carrageenan potentially very significant.
Reduced Cholesterol Levels
High levels of bad cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis, which can increase the likelihood of heart attacks or strokes. A study on the cholesterol-related effects of carrageenan indicated that a diet that regularly incorporates carrageenan might lead to lower blood cholesterol and lipid levels, beyond that of normal dietary fibers.
A second study supports these findings and notes that carrageenan can be used not only to help prevent atherosclerosis, but also as a treatment for cardiovascular disease.
Treatment for Common Cold and Flu
In the United States alone, there are hundreds of millions of cases of the common cold every year, with adults averaging two to three cases, and children experiencing even more. Despite the unpleasantness of having the flu, most people have come to expect a bout with the flu as a normal yearly occurrence. We have come to accept that there simply is no way to avoid or cure the common cold.
Perhaps that is not as set in stone as we once believed. A recent study out of Austria identifies potential antiviral properties associated with carrageenan. Some of the same properties that make carrageenan valuable as a thickener in foods also make it an effective treatment when used as an ingredient in nasal sprays. The study suggests that carrageenan gel is capable of adhering directly to viruses, preventing them from attaching to the nasal wall, and limiting their ability to propagate.
A separate study likewise concluded that carrageenan-based nasal spray might be effective as a treatment for influenza, even when the treatment starts well after infection.
One of the most promising aspects of these medical findings is that carrageenan seems to be effective, regardless of the specific cold virus being targeted. That is probably why carrageenan is already being used in many over-the-counter nasal sprays in Europe.
Healthy Alternative to Unhealthy Foods
Food additives do just that—they add something to a common food item. Sometimes, however, the most important function they provide is that through replacing an ingredient. As mentioned previously, carrageenan can be used to improve the taste and texture of low fat, low-sodium, and low-sugar foods.
Unlike similar ingredients, carrageenan is both organic and vegan. As such, in addition to improving texture, preventing separation, and keeping foods fresh and enjoyable for longer periods of time, carrageenan also provides the option of a healthier food that still tastes good, without some of the potentially unethical processes of other, animal-based, additives, not to mention the calories that come with regular fat.
While you may already be familiar with the word “carrageenan,” thanks to recent studies, this innovative food ingredient is ready to find new life beyond the label. We are only now beginning to discover other benefits of carrageenan, and as researchers put this simple seaweed extract under the microscope, its advantages are really starting to add up.