The dairy-alternative market has made quite the splash (sorry couldn’t help myself) in the last twenty years or so with soymilk making its inception as early as the 1980’s. For those of us out of the 70% who can’t digest lactose passed infancy have found, these beverages have been quite the saviour gracing our smoothies in a big way. In my previous life as an Ad Exec, I’ll fully admit I was sucked into the soymilk extravaganza thinking it was the healthy option for my latte. But after a tummy that would bloat exceeding the circumference of my chest, I realized soy was a no go. Sure I flirted with thin, sugary rice milks until jumping on the unsweetened almond milk bandwagon with glee. Finally I felt I had found a non-dairy alternative home, until NEWSFLASH carrageenan, an ingredient found in almond milk tetra packs, was the new evil promoting intestinal damage and even cancer.[Queue Melissa throwing another non-dairy alternative tetra pack at the wall in frustration]
So before you go crying over almond milk, take a deep cleansing breath and please…stop freaking out.
Now if still you’re lost wondering what the mass hysteria is about, let me fill you in: A recent review of 45 animal studies on carrageenan from 2001 revealed that it produces ulceration of the colon and extreme inflammation. But here is where I have to make a bit of a stink and clear the air.
Not all carrageenan is the same
Carageenan, which is derived from red algae, actually has two different distinctions: degraded and undegraded carrageenan that are very different compounds and should be treated as such. Undegraded is approved for human consumption while degraded (also known as poligeenan) is not. And unfortunately the 2001 animal studies showing the link with cancer use poligeenan in high doses giving undegraded carrageenan a worse wrap than it should. Now this isn’t to say that undegraded carrageenan is completely in the clear but as it stands, it has not a known carcinogen.
This isn’t to say that I trust the FDA or Health Canada when it comes to approved food additives, because I don’t. In fact, I trust them as much as I believe [enter sarcasm here] that we should be drinking the 3-4 servings of cow dairy daily.
The effects of carrageenan are species-dependent
Certainly there have been some animal studies linking undegraded carrageenan to intestinal damage. After 83 days and being given carrageenan at 5%, pigs showed abnormalities in the intestines but no ulcerations or tumors. A recent rat study showed no ulcerations or lesions after 90 days of exposure. The point to this: carrageenan is highly species dependent making it difficult to understand the effects in humans.
Carrageenan in water versus food
The interesting thing about these studies is that they were given to animals with water versus food. And none of these studies were done on humans for obvious reasons but rather done in vitro (outside the body) without again, the presence of food. You see when you mix almond milk with your smoothie, the carrageenan interacts with proteins making it less harmful than if you just had it with water. Plus these studies yielded greater concentrations to animals than what would be consumed by humans (approximately 1% of a small portion our total diet).
Now I’m not saying that you should stick primarily to almond milk out of a tetra packs. Rather what I am saying is that if you find yourself in a bind and use boxed almond milk, don’t punish yourself or be riddled with fear if you do. Sure, there will always be the tummy-sensitive folks who will react to it and if that’s the case with you then stay away from it and plan ahead.
And for those of you who have no idea how to make your own, it’s fairly simple and allows for a lot of flexibility in terms of the flavours you can add in (think cinnamon, vanilla, etc.). I generally make mine on the weekend and store them in mason jars in the fridge that lasts me about 3 days. But if I run out and need it, yes, I will buy a box of unsweetened original Almond Breeze.
Listen, sometimes we forget to plan ahead and we just have to do the best we can with what we’ve got. So instead of falling into shaming or punishing yourself because of fear ensued by the media, stop. Sometimes guilt can be worse than the act itself. But no, you should never stop asking questions, but you should also go easy on yourself. Just because you didn’t get the chance to milk your nut sac doesn’t make you bad person who’s going to get cancer. So in the meantime, you have options and the best one available to you right this second?