Having an allergy or an intolerance to a common food item is always inconvenient. However, it’s even harder to avoid an allergen when it’s a food additive instead of a basic ingredient such as nuts or milk. Carrageenan is a type of food additive that’s found in a wide range of products. And even though it’s natural, it can cause many health problems. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to diagnose a carrageenan allergy and avoid this product since it’s in so many different foods.
What is carrageenan?
Carrageenan is an entire family of slightly varied chemical compounds that are extracted from certain types of edible seaweed.
These seaweeds were used in ancient China and Ireland to create a form of gelatin. After their thickening properties became evident, carrageenan started to be added to commercially produced foods.
The carrageenan industry sells roughly $640 million worth of carrageenan each year.
The polysaccharides in these seaweeds create molecules that form stable, thick gels that remain solid even after being at room temperature for a while. They help to stabilize food mixtures and keep them from separating. Carrageenan can also encourage certain foods to thicken up or start to form a gel. There are three different types of carrageenan:
- Kappa carrageenan reacts with the protein and potassium in dairy to form stiff gels.
- Iota carrageenan reacts with calcium to create a soft gel.
- Lambda carrageenan thickens products without making them into a gel.
The signs of an allergy to carrageenan
The most common carrageenan allergy symptoms are gastrointestinal issues.
People who come into contact with carrageenan often experience upset stomachs, abnormal bowel movements, stomach cramps, bloating, and stomach aches.
They may also feel nauseous and even vomit.
Some people break out into an itchy skin rash after eating or touching a product that contains carrageenan.
In severe cases, people who eat carrageenan may go into anaphylactic shock. This causes extreme swelling, slurred speech, mental confusion, difficulty swallowing or breathing, and occasionally unconsciousness.
Carrageenan allergy vs. carrageenan intolerance
Carrageenan can affect people in different ways, so some people have an allergy while other people just have a mild intolerance.
Carrageenan intolerance symptoms tend to be milder than the symptoms of an allergy. People may just feel slightly queasy and unwell, and the symptoms may not be evident for a few hours.
In contrast, people with an allergy to carrageenan will immediately feel unwell and start exhibiting the symptoms of an allergy.
Even though it’s possible for people with a carrageenan intolerance to eat carrageenan, it’s not advisable.
How to manage a carrageenan allergy
Of course the best way to deal with a carrageenan allergy is to avoid any items that contain these products, but this is much harder than it sounds.
Toothpastes, shampoos, lubricants, and lotions can all contain carrageenan. It can also be used in shoe polishes, air fresheners, and even certain fabric dyeing processes.
Therefore, you’ll have to exercise a lot of caution if you have an allergy to carrageenan. If you do become exposed to the product, the appropriate treatment will depend on what symptoms you’re having.
A person in anaphylactic shock will need to seek emergency medical treatment, but a patient who just gets a mildly upset stomach may be able to treat it with home remedies.
Over the counter pain medications can be used to soothe cramping, and anti-nausea remedies may provide some relief. Anti-itch creams can help people who get a rash from carrageenan.
Foods to avoid if you have an allergy
It can be hard to avoid carrageenan if you have an allergy or intolerance because it’s so widespread.
Carrageenan is primarily used in dairy products, but it also exists in a huge variety of other food products. You may have to research products and read their ingredient list before buying them to make sure that you do not get something with carrageenan.
Foods that contain carrageenan include:
- Ice Cream
- Sweetened condensed milk
- Soy milk
- Diet soda
- Vegetarian meat substitutes
- Salad dressings
- Processed lunch meats
- Packaged dips
- Vitamins in gel capsules