Overheard at GST

Today’s email is called “overheard at GST.”

This might make a few people a little butthurt, but recently there has been some talk about carrageenan in the gym and how it “causes cancer.” Carrageenan is a common food additive found in things like almond milk or chocolate. So what is it?

It’s a food additive that is super versatile. It can act like a stabilizer, thickener, gelatin-substitute, and helps extend shelf life. It also has zero calories.

If you don’t want to read the rest of the email, the answer is that it doesn’t cause cancer and it is perfectly safe to eat. The “research” (aka trash) was one study that looked at a correlation (correlation doesn’t equal causation) between carrageenan and inflammation. The study has been refuted as a crappy study and multiple studies before and after that study have come out to show it being safe.

It’s a food additive that is super versatile. It can act like a stabilizer, thickener, gelatin-substitute, and helps extend shelf life. It also has zero calories.

It is made from seaweed–irish moss to be exact–and is so simple to make that you can do it at home. It’s made by gently heating the seaweed in a non-acidic broth and then filtering it out. You can also use the irish moss for many of the same functions that carrageenan is used for (my mom does this a lot with her cooking). 

(Fun fact, the use of carrageenan is dated back to 400 BC in Ireland when irish moss was used as a thickener in gels, broths, and puddings.)

So, where did all of this bad information come from? Another substance produced by irish moss is poligeenan. That stuff is used in medical imaging and is not food safe. The process to make it is totally different. Instead of a gentle boil, it needs to be heated up to extreme temperatures for a sustained amount of time in an acid bath. The pH of the acid bath is the equivalent of car battery acid to make this stuff. 

The argument that “social media influencers” make is that carrageenan is broken down into poligeenan in the digestive process. You have heat and you have stomach acid, so this kinda makes sense. This is where you need some biochem background before going on the internet claiming information. The temperature you need to sustain for a long time to change carrageenan to poligeenan is in excess of 190 degrees Fahrenheit (highest recorded temperature in a human is 117 degrees Fahrenheit, and you’d probably be dead at this point). The acid in your stomach, while strong, isn’t as strong as car battery acid, which is about 10 times more acidic than your stomach. And, as a final nail in the coffin, if you want to argue about the length of time in an acid bath, as soon as the carrageenan hits your small intestines, it gets hit with alkaline bile salts. 

 In summary, it’s safe to eat, and a great substitute for vegans/vegetarians (it is also kosher. Before you send me any research articles, if the author is Tobacman, those studies and reviews have been refuted by the scientific community. 

So, why write an email on this subject?

Honestly, I don’t care whether you choose to eat or avoid carrageenan. What I care about is keeping you informed about all of the misinformation out there about foods and food additives. 

Artificial sweeteners?It looks like they’re all relatively safe but may alter your microbiome in high doses. So your protein shake and occasional diet drink are probably okay. Doses that cause cancer are usually 100 times the amount a person could actually consume and that research was only done in animal studies. 

Guar gum? Appears to be safe.

That’s not to say that there are ones you should avoid, like trans fats, but when you see a news story or article online that isn’t from a university, a respected organization, you should be skeptical of what they say and do your own research. 

Also, since most of the foods that contain these substances are processed foods, if you start switching over to a diet full of unprocessed meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, you will automatically limit food additives and keep them within the safe limits.