That’s no hyperbolic click bait. You may actually have this ingredient in several “healthy” foods in your fridge right now.
If you drink non-dairy milk or yogurt alternatives, or even some coffee creamers, cottage cheese, sour cream, ice creams, infant formula, hummus, toothpaste and more… This list goes on and on!
Depending on who you ask, this is one additive that can be completely benign, or merely be an occasional intestinal irritant, or possibly even be linked to intestinal cancer. In fact, many people who have consciously eliminated carrageenan from their diets have noticed it single handedly reduced or eliminated symptoms of IBS and digestive disorders.
So, if there’s so much confusion, do you really need to avoid it?
Well, really, that’s up to you. But it’s a symptom of a bigger problem. Industrialized food processing has succeeding in creating consistent, long lasting, aesthetically pleasing products as cheap as possible. And that means non-nutritional additives of questionable, debatable, dubious implications to our health. Many of these ingredients are not subjected to long term human studies, but merely short term animal testing and little or no human testing. Long term, just like pharmaceutical drugs, the general population is largely unaware of this ongoing experiment. The experiment is to figure out how many chemicals can be used to sustain human life for the lowest possible cost with the minimum of actual food ingredients. Milk alternatives with carrageenan are like the Twinkie of the health food world, almost no real food ingredients!
So what is carrageenan?
Carrageenan has been used since the 1930s as an emulsifier in foods, cosmetics, chemicals and more. It’s seemingly benign, extracted from a natural seaweed. But like many other things that are safe in in small quantities, once they’re extracted, concentrated, and ubiquitously added to everything, they may begin to pose some serious threats to our health. If you haven’t already, why not take a look at your pantry and your fridge and see how many ingredient lists have carrageenan on them? What other ingredients do you see that maybe don’t sound so natural, but keep popping up label after label? How many of these foods are you eating, day after day, that your body has to filter out these non-nutritional or synthetic additives?
In addition to carrageenan, many of your favorite non-dairy milk alternatives contain other emulsifiers of questionable safety, and “nutritional” additives like vitamin A palmitate or D2. Not to mention levels of sugar that would rival your [least] favorite soft drinks! A quick google search of these ingredients reveals even more controversial ingredients all over your kitchen.
But if these non-dairy alternatives are supposed to be “healthier” than the real thing, why do they need to supplement them?
Probably, because there’s very little of the almond or any other purported base in the product at all. It has been the subject of recent lawsuits that these companies are basically hawking sugar water with emulsifiers that just make them seem creamy and “milk-like.” Combine that with pasteurization and you really just have dead nut flavored sugar emulsion with artificial vitamins. And usually, it doesn’t even taste like nuts, just the vanilla additive they typically use (I was looking at nut milks recently and noticed that the “original” and “vanilla flavored” variety of several brands had the exact same ingredients!)
Another concern is the environmental impact of the two most popular non-dairy milks, almond and soy. Both of these crops rely on intensive mono-cultures that, even when they are organic, can have a devastating impact on the environment. In fact, the cultivation of almonds requires bees be shipped in from all over the world just to pollinate them for 2 weeks every year. These monocultures essentially create vast desert wastelands that provide no benefit to bees and wildlife for 90+% of the year. Even organic soybeans require lots of “organic” high nitrogen fertilizers contributing to ocean dead zones and algae blooms, and neonicotinoid pesticides that may be linked to bee colony collapse. So, for example, here in New York, a better alternative might be sunflower seeds and dried cherries from a small farm in the Finger Lakes region to make a delicious milk alternative.
So, what’s a coffee or cereal lover to do?
Easy! Get a good blender and a nut milk bag, and follow these easy steps to discover the real potential of “mylk!”
1. Pick your favorite nuts, seeds, and even dried fruits
2. Cover them in water and soak them for at least half an hour, or even overnight to maximize the nutritional benefits of germination of raw nuts and seeds
3. Drain and rinse them, and then add 1 cup of any combination of nuts, seeds and dry fruit to 2-3 cups of water depending on how thick you want your mylk
4. Blend thoroughly on high speed and strain through your nut milk bag
5. [optional] add the pulp back to your blender with 1 cup of water and blend again to fully extract the fats and carbs with all their nutritional goodness and strain again!
6. I always add a couple pinches of salt to my mylks for taste and to keep them fresh in the fridge for up to about 48 hours
Some great alternatives to combine with or move beyond the soy, almond, coconut, rice and oat milks you’ve been guzzling (these can be mixed and matched in any combination or proportion):
Green pumpkin seeds/pepitas, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts, pistachios, pine nuts, hazelnuts, quinoa, apricot kernels, buckwheat or flax seeds (but do some research and find something that’s sustainably produced in your region).
These can be sweetened with dried fruits like dates, cherries, raisins, craisins, mulberries, figs, blueberries, or bananas (you can use fresh or frozen fruit, too!)
Two of the latest “mylk sensations” are Tiger Nut horchata and pea mylk! They’re both super rich and creamy, with lots of nutritional benefits that taste great.
Some people find homemade nut mylks lack consistency when added to hot coffee or tea. I recommend experimenting with safe, healthy emulsifiers like sunflower lecithin, a drop or two of limonene oil, or agar agar. Also, using a probiotic as a culture, you can make your own non-dairy kefir to get more live probiotics in your diet (but that may need to be the subject of another blog post!)
The moral of the story, is to read labels, and know what you’re putting in your body. Even though it may seem like some extra work, making your own foods like nut mylks can be fun, especially for kids who like to pick their ingredients and strain the mylk themselves. And it’s an easy way to get a little extra variety in our diet.