Carrageenan likely isn’t top of mind for most expectant mothers, but its use in everyday foods and drinks has caused quite a controversy. While some scientists say that carrageenan is nothing to worry about, others have started pointing a finger at the plant-based thickening agent as the cause of digestive troubles.
Carrageenan is still a (relatively) new addition to foods and drinks, with much more research needing to be done in order to determine exactly what an “upper limit” dose might be.
While eating less-processed foods without added thickeners, like carrageenan, has many health benefits, enjoying processed foods that use carrageenan in moderation is still likely safe- even throughout pregnancy.
Here’s what we know about this unseen food additive and how carrageenan might affect your body and your pregnancy.
Is Carrageenan Safe During Pregnancy?
Commonly misunderstood, food-grade carrageenan is a starchy thickener used to improve the texture and mouthfeel of milkshakes, ice cream, meat products, yogurt, and even non-dairy milk. The starchiness helps to thicken foods and drinks without turning them to gell- no one wants to drink jello-thick soy milk, after all.
As a food, Irish moss and other Eucheuma seaweeds are safe to eat throughout pregnancy. Despite the established safety of sea moss, there is some controversy over how carrageenan extracted from these same plants affects the body’s typical metabolism, leading to digestive problems, and even cancers.
One research group found evidence that carrageenan might be affecting insulin levels similarly to diabetes, however, this has only been studied in male mice and not in people (source: Springer). Similarly, laboratory studies of cells and mice showed that inflammation increased after exposure to carrageenan (source: Nutrients).
Again, these studies were not tried with humans, so we don’t know if the same inflammation would happen in the human body. Since there haven’t even been any studies done on humans, there certainly haven’t been any specific to pregnant mothers either.
Another group of scientists tried to debunk the theories that carrageenan might be causing any side effects.
They showed that carrageenan doesn’t cause cancer and that the small amounts used in foods and drinks are not toxic, citing that many of the studies that reported side effects from carrageenan used amounts much larger than what’s typically found in foods (source: Critical Reviews in Toxicology).
What do all of these scientists and researchers agree on? They all agree that more research is needed to determine just exactly how carrageenan affects humans and what the safest amount is.
Currently, carrageenan is ‘generally recognized as safe,’ meaning that consuming it in foods and drinks has not been shown to cause any harm. Additionally, the World Health Organization has not set any upper limit for safety (source: Critical Reviews in Toxicology).
Based on the findings from the leading global health organizations, when consumed in typical foods and drinks, carrageenan is likely safe, including during pregnancy.
Food and Drink That Commonly Contains Carrageenan
Some folks feel more comfortable limiting carrageenan or avoiding it altogether. Since it’s not the main ingredient in any foods or dishes, looking to avoid carrageenan means a lot of reading the ingredients label. Carrageenan is most commonly found in:
- Non-dairy milk including soy, almond, oat, and coconut
- Ice cream and frozen dairy desserts
- Yogurt, including both dairy and non-dairy versions
- Coffee creamers
- Cottage cheese
- Sausage and other processed meats
Even if you’re trying to limit carrageenan in your diet, that doesn’t mean these foods are off the table (no pun intended). Some brands are switching over to using other types of thickeners in place of carrageenan. Xanthan gum, gellan gum, guar gum, gelatin (not vegan), and pectin.
Of course, eating foods that are less processed is another way to limit carrageenan. Eating fewer processed foods has many health benefits, including less added sugar, more fiber, and a wide variety of colors to get in all of the necessary vitamins and minerals.
There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to dietary carrageenan. Despite the still-growing research into its effects and any ‘upper limit,’ the amount found in foods and drinks is small and likely safe, even throughout pregnancy.