It used to be there was just milk.

Now there are tons of non-dairy options: soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, hemp milk, coconut milk. Unless you’re super motivated, you probably don’t want to make your own. I tried making my own almond milk once, and, let’s just say it was minimal return on investment.

Since then, I stick to the milk on the store shelves. But when it comes to food on the shelves, I like to scrutinize labels. Most of the time, if there are any preservatives or artificial sweeteners and even stabilizers it’s probably not going in my shopping cart.

Then there’s milk… specifically almond milk and soy milk. First, you have to figure if someone is drinking almond or soy milk they’re either health conscious or can’t tolerate cow’s milk. Either way, that’s a group of consumers who are conscious about what they’re putting into their bodies and they probably don’t want a lot of artificial type stuff.

First, unless it’s unsweetened, most of the milks have evaporated cane juice as one of the top ingredients. In the grand scheme of sweeteners, cane juice is not terrible. It’s not artificial and it’s not heavily processed, but it is still sugar.

The ingredient, though, that’s just been brought to my attention that is raising eyebrows and I would venture to say most people aren’t familiar with is carrageenan.

Carrageenan is natural and it’s vegan. It’s made from seaweed and it’s used to thicken and emulisify products. But natural does not equal healthy. A study came out about 11 years ago that found carrageenan can cause ulcers and cancers of the digestive tract. Long before that study even came out, the FDA had cause to be concerned. For a short time, they put a limitation on the type of carrageenan that could be used in foods. For som reason, though, they withdrew that ruling and haven’t done anything in more than 30 years.

It could be that most of the early studies focuses on the degraded form, and they type used in most foods is undegraded. According to  Dr. Joanne Tobacman, from the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Medicine, there’s a chance stomach acids could work on the undegraded form and turn it into its more dangerous cousin.

Dr. Tobacman did a study that was published in the Journal of Nutrition a few years ago that found even low concentrations of carrageenan was enough to induce cancerous changes in cells of the intestine.

Now, to be fair, that study was done in a lab and from what I have found, there’s not a lot of proof that it really does cause cancer in humans. 

But, still…

While the jury may be out on whether carrageenan causes cancer, what does concern me is the potential for it to cause stomach upset.

Someone I know who follows a very specific diet for her child with autism was the one who actually brought this to my attention because she was told to avoid giving her son foods with carrageenan because of what it will do to his stomach. I know, for me, I notice a discomfort in my stomch when I drink milks with carrageenan but I always blamed the other parts of the drink, i.e. the protein powder or the coffee – or I just figured I couldn’t handle the almond or soy milk.

It makes sense, though. Carrageenan is a thick gel. It can stick to the walls of the intestine and, therefore, can cause upset.

Even WebMD warns about the way carrageenan can interact with oral medications and decrease the amount of medication absorbed by the body because of what it does inside the intestine.

I did some research at Whole Foods this weekend and here are a few brands without carrageenan (at least the versions I looked at):

  • 365 (WF’s brand) – tasted it and really like it!
  • Silk Pure Almond milk

It’s still a little early to tell if the carrageenan-free milks are having less impact on my stomach, but for now, I’m going to stick with those options and see how it goes. I figure, it can’t hurt!