Red Seaweed

I was completely overjoyed, ecstatic and over the moon when I received the news that one of the major UK supermarkets was bringing out a coconut based vegan cheese product. I miss cheese, you see. Of all the foods that I've had to give up, cheese has been the most difficult, by far. However, I never touch it because I know how badly my body reacts to it and I don't want a malfunctioning gut for 2 days as a result!

I made a special trip to this particular grocery store to purchase my treat! When I read the list of ingredients my heart sank. 'Carreenagen' was there in amongst the other seemingly natural ingredients.

Carreenagen is an 'natural' food additive derived from a special kind of red seaweed which is different from other seaweeds such as nori and kelp. It is often used in organic and allergy-free products. It is used to thicken and emulsify foodstuffs and make them more palatable. I've seen it in chilled almond and coconut milk although I only ever use the UHT coconut milk which doesn't contain it.

I have read up a little on this supposedly 'healthy & natural' ingredient.  It is non-nutritional and indigestible for the body and it can cause gut issues in some sensitive people. It seems that this additive has been used for centuries in food preparations and revered for its gelling properties. However, the refined, isolated carrageenan found in modern processed foods is raising some concerns.

Back to the cheese.

Even though there were a few alarm bells going off in my head, I decided to give the coconut cheese a try and hope that I wasn't one of the 'carreenagen sensitive' people. The cheese was absolutely delicious and had a genuine mature cheddar taste. I crumbled it over my gluten-free pasta and spread it on my corn cakes. I think I probably ate a little too much. It was just so nice to eat something cheesy again!

A few hours after my indulgence, I started feeling weird. I started to sneeze and my nose started to run. I felt a little spaced out and tired as well. This was not a good sign. That night, I had tummy pain and didn't sleep well at all. I decided to stop eating the cheese (I actually just threw the rest away) and do a little bit of thorough research as to what I was actually eating.

This is what I discovered about carreenagen, to my absolute horror:

  1. It triggers a immune response similar to when your body is under attack from a bacteria or virus - hence the sneezing and runny nose! One researcher, Dr. Tobacman also shared that in the past, drug investigators actually used carrageenan to cause inflammation in tissues in order to test the anti-inflammatory properties of new drugs.
  2. The inflammatory response in your body is activated in response to careenagen. Yes, just what we want when we have MS!
  3. In lab experiments, it has been linked  to gastrointestinal disease in lab animals, including ulcerative colitis, intestinal lesions, and colon cancer.  What?
  4. It can cause glucose intolerance and impaired insulin action which can lead to diabetes.
  5. If consumed regularly, it can cause leaky gut syndrome.

Disaster right?

The worst bit about carreenagen is that it can be found in many foodstuffs claiming to be all natural and super healthy such as vegan milk products, vegan cheeses, vegan ready meals and soups. It's so strange to me how no one in these companies has yet realised that they are putting a very harmful ingredient in their supposedly 'healthy' products'. There is clearly a lot of information out there on the health concerns of this ingredient. Surely there is an alternative natural  thickening agent!

The Two Types

To complicate matters further, it seems that there are two types of carreenagen, undegraded and degraded. From a chemical point of view, the difference between these two types is in their molecular weight. Practically, undegraded carrageenan is approved for use in food products, while degraded carrageenan is not. Although both substances are often referred to as ‘carrageenan,’ they have very different chemical properties and should really be treated as separate compounds. Degraded carrageenan is also called ‘poligeenan,’ which seems to be a lot more dangerous than the undegraded, approved type and has been shown to cause a myriad of health issues including cancer.

So, undegraded carreenagen may not be as bad as some people think it is, but it clearly still has some nasty effects. For me, anything that actually gives rise to and perpetuates inflammation is an absolute no no and I won't touch it with a barge poll even if it has been approved for use in food products.

Be Vigilant

I urge you to be extremely cautious when buying new health food products. Always read the label and question every ingredient. I would also encourage you to go and check the labels of products that you have in your kitchen right now to make sure they don't contain careenagen or anything else nasty. Look up any ingredients that you're not sure about. Just a reminder that you definitely want to be avoiding any preservatives, sugar, gluten and dairy in your MS diet. Look out for E numbers too!

Summing it Up

What we put into our bodies will either contribute to healing or to inflammation and disease. It's so super important that we are aware of the composition of every tiny morsel that we're ingesting. Careenagen has reminded me of this and put me back on high alert. I'm a little sad about my vegan cheese but happy that my body was able to communicate the handful nature of this product. Isn't it funny that we often have to experience pain before we learn?

I do have a delicious recipe for cashew cheese which is obviously all natural and amazing! However, in my next post I'll be sharing the recipe for a fermented and dehydrated cheese which is just to die for. It does take two days to make but is fully worth it!

I would love to hear your opinion on this controversial ingredient!