Dairy Free Winner and Losers: And The Debate Over Carrageenan

Since I began the journey to dairy free (or at least less dairy) over a month ago, I have definitely noticed clearer sinuses and far less congestion even being pregnant at the height of allergy season. I’ve enjoyed trying the wide range of dairy substitutes on the market and have found about half to be hits and half to be misses.


But before we get into my super scientific study, let’s get into some real science that has me a bit concerned. I recently learned about the danger of Carrageenan (an emulsifying ingredient derived from red seaweed) in many soy, almond, and coconut milk products – even the organic ones. I found this handy guide which lists the brands and products which do and do not contain carrageenan, but am still hard pressed to find an uncanned coconut milk or vegan cheese without it.

There are conflicting opinions on the concern about carrageenan, but overall the green and holistic healthcare community seems to agree that it should be avoided if possible. Now, am I going to switch back to skim versus soy lattes at Starbucks over this? Probably not. But if I were a person with inflammatory bowel disease or felt like I was experiencing digestive issues from the ingredient, I would definitely try harder to avoid it. For now I am of the camp of sticking with the best-tasting carrageenan-free products and accepting the ingredient where I can’t realistically avoid it.

I also know many of you will advise making my own almond or coconut milk and tell me how easy it is – and I am sure it is not super complicated or time consuming. But for now I am not prepared to add one more thing to the DIY list and fortunately my main staple is a C-free almond milk easily available in stores!


Best Almond Milk: My main staple for cereal, oatmeal, and anything else that calls for milk is Silk PureAlmond Milk. Tastes great, carrageenan free, and easy to find.


Best Coconut Milk: Coconut Milk has been tricky as I can not seem to find any carrageenan-free varieties apart from the ones that come in a can (inconvenient and also possible BPA). I use coconut milk primarily for my homemade ice pops and have been using So Delicious until I can find a better alternative. I did receive a statement on carrageenan from So Delicious: “For the past year, we’ve been working very hard on reformulating our coconut milk beverage line to remove carrageenan. Although the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) conducted a review of carrageenan in May 2012 and approved its continued use in organic foods, our fans still voiced concerns over the ingredient, so our team decided to proactively look for alternate solutions. As I’m sure you know, it isn’t always easy work to recreate recipes. We want to select top quality ingredients and deliver delicious dairy-free options to kitchen tables across the country. We are very pleased with our progress and recently started sampling our new carrageenan-free recipes with consumers, retailers, and food reporters to get their feedback on our improved coconut milk beverages. We are working on new packaging now and are aiming to have our new products in stores by the end of 2013.”


Best Mozzarella Sub: I found Daiya mozzarella shreds to be inedible. I was much more open to the flavor of Lisanatti mozzerella-style almond cheese, although my husband tells me it does not melt as promised. But I will take flavor over function any day. That said, not carrageenan free.


Best Cream Cheese Sub: I was ridiculously excited after tasting the Tofutti Better Than Cream Cheese spread on a bagel. Seriously so good! Downside: Whopping 2 grams of trans fat per serving! So definitely not for everyday. And also not C-Free. I hear Follow Your Heart tastes just as good and has no trans fat but I haven’t tried it yet.


Best Butter Sub: Nothing but good things to say about Earth Balance Buttery Spread – great taste, good texture, and C-free.


Best Treat: So Delicious Dairy Free Coconut Almond Bars. Delicious, portioned for “control,” and c-free.

Best American Cheese Sub: The Galaxy Nutritional Foods Rice Slices look and melt like regular American cheese, but the taste is still a bit hard to swallow. If anyone can find a palatable cheddar or American cheese substitute please let me know!

Carrageenan is also found in some regular dairy products. For instance, Stonyfield uses it in just two of its products (Oikos – caramel flavor only and Squeezers) but assure customers that due to customer concern it is being phased out shortly (see why I love that brand!) Again, we are not becoming a totally dairy-free household – especially because Sam can taste the difference between regular and almond milk and is not having it. And I would never deprive him of his yogurt addiction.

Are there any other good d-free (and c-free) products on the market you think I should try?

  • Just so you’re aware, there are two versions of the Tofutti cream cheese. One has hydrogenated oil, while the other doesn’t! Just thought you might find this helpful since you mentioned the trans fat issue.

  • paige

    Interesting. Do the versions have different names?

  • THIS post totally rocks. We are anti-carrageenan too, and I was thrilled to discover Silk Almond Milk too! We so SD coconut ice cream, and try to avoid ALL soy. Tricky! I am THRILLED that SD is working on removing it from their coconut milk Yay 🙂



    Q. What
    is Carrageenan??

    A. Carrageenan is a naturally-occurring seaweed extract. It
    is widely used in foods and non-foods to improve texture and stability. Common
    uses include meat and poultry, dairy products, canned pet food, cosmetics and

    Q. Why the controversy?

    A. Self-appointed
    consumer watchdogs have produced numerous web pages filled with words
    condemning carrageenan as an unsafe food additive for human consumption. However, in 70+ years of carrageenan being
    used in processed foods, not a single
    substantiated claim of an acute or chronic disease has been reported as arising
    from carrageenan consumption. On a more
    science-based footing, food regulatory agencies in the US, the EU, and in the
    UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) repeatedly
    review and continue to approve carrageenan as a safe food additive.

    Q. What
    has led up to this misrepresentation of the safety of an important food
    stabilizer, gelling agent and thickener?

    A. It
    clearly has to be attributed to the research of Dr. Joanne Tobacman, an
    Associate Prof at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She and a group of molecular biologists have accused
    carrageenan of being a potential inflammatory agent as a conclusion from
    laboratory experiments with cells of the digestive tract. It requires a lot of unproven assumptions to
    even suggest that consumption of carrageenan in the human diet causes
    inflammatory diseases of the digestive tract.
    The objectivity of the Chicago research is also flawed by the fact that
    Dr Tobacman has tried to have carrageenan declared an unsafe food additive on
    weak technical arguments that she broadcast widely a decade before the
    University of Chicago research began.

    Q. What brings poligeenan into a
    discussion of carrageenan?

    A. Poligeenan
    (“degraded carrageenan” in pre-1988 scientific and regulatory publications) is
    a possible carcinogen to humans;
    carrageenan is not. The only
    relationship between carrageenan and poligeenan is that the former is the
    starting material to make the latter. Poligeenan is not a component of
    carrageenan and cannot be produced in the digestive tract from
    carrageenan-containing foods.

    Q. What are the differences between poligeenan
    and carrageenan?

    A. The
    production process for poligeenan requires treating carrageenan with strong
    acid at high temp (about that of boiling water) for 6 hours or more. These severe processing conditions convert
    the long chains of carrageenan to much shorter ones: ten to one hundred times
    shorter. In scientific terms the
    molecular weight of poligeenan is 10,000 to 20,000; whereas that of carrageenan
    is 200,000 to 800,000. Concern has been
    raised about the amount of material in carrageenan with molecular weight less
    than 50,000. The actual amount (well
    under 1%) cannot even be detected accurately with current technology. Certainly
    it presents no threat to human health.

    Q. What is the importance of these
    molecular weight differences?

    A. Poligeenan
    contains a fraction of material low enough in molecular weight that it can
    penetrate the walls of the digestive tract and enter the blood stream. The molecular weight of carrageenan is high
    enough that this penetration is impossible.
    Animal feeding studies starting in the 1960s have demonstrated that once
    the low molecular weight fraction of poligeenan enters the blood stream in
    large enough amounts, pre-cancerous lesions begin to form. These
    lesions are not observed in animals fed with a food containing carrageenan.

    Q. Does carrageenan get absorbed in the
    digestive track?

    A. Carrageenan
    passes through the digestive system intact, much like food fiber. In fact,
    carrageenan is a combination of soluble and insoluble nutritional fiber, though
    its use level in foods is so low as not to be a significant source of fiber in
    the diet.


    has been proven completely safe for consumption. Poligeenan is not a component
    of carrageenan.

    Closing Remarks

    The consumer watchdogs with their
    blogs and websites would do far more service to consumers by researching their
    sources and present only what can be substantiated by good science. Unfortunately we are in an era of media
    frenzy that rewards controversy.

    information available:

    June 11th, 2008, Dr. Joanne Tobacman petitioned the FDA to revoke
    the current regulations permitting use of carrageenan as a food additive.

    On June 11th, 2012 the
    FDA denied her petition, categorically addressing and ultimately dismissing all
    of her claims; their rebuttal supported by the results of several in-depth,
    scientific studies.

    If you would like to read
    the full petition and FDA response, they can be accessed at http://www.regulations.gov/#!searchResults;rpp=25;po=0;s=FDA-2008-P-0347

  • Cheryl

    I don’t care if the FDA or any other agency has deemed carrageenan safe for consumption, I know that every single time I eat a product with carrageenan in it, I have terrible GI upset. I am very careful about what I eat, and have even done a test with similar products with and without carrageenan. Every time I consume it, I feel terrible. I wish So Delicious’s sugar free ice cream did not have it, because it is delicious otherwise.

  • Trish Truitt
  • just me

    Response from the Cornucopia Institute, found on another blog…

    long comment titled “So much for the myths” was initially composed by
    Dr. Harris Bixler, a director of the international trade association for
    carrageenan manufacturers, which includes multibillion dollar chemical
    corporations like FMC Corporation and DuPont. Dr. Bixler was at the
    National Organic Standards Board meeting in May 2012, to lobby for the
    continued use of carrageenan in organic foods. He has for years
    attempted to discredit the work of publicly funded scientists like Dr.
    Tobacman. This response has been posted to nearly all blogs that address
    carrageenan, so I wanted you to know where this information is coming

    Thanks for writing about this, and helping educate others about the harmful effects of this common food additive.”

    Charlotte Vallaeys
    Director, Farm and Food Policy
    The Cornucopia Institute

    FYI- The person who posted that long article works for a company that sells carrageenan. Do the math.

  • Melissa Melton

    Debbie Young works for Ingredient Solutions Inc., the world’s largest independent carrageenan supplier. She’s admitted this on other posts when she’s called out for passing off her company’s talking points as facts.

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