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Is There a Dangerous Ingredient Lurking in Your Soy Milk?

Soy Milk Dangerous Ingredient

Photo: Pond5

Got soy milk sitting in your fridge? Depending on the brand you buy, you may want to take a second look at the ingredient list before you start sipping away.

Last week, WhiteWave Foods, the company that manufactures popular Silk and Horizon Organic milks, announced that they would begin removing the ingredient carrageenan from their goods starting in 2015.

While you may have never heard of this strange-sounding additive, it’s more common than you’d think. “It’s actually a thickener derived from seaweed that’s used in a lot of the products that most people consider to be health food products, including almond milks, soy milks, yogurts and also in some chocolates,” says Danielle Pashko, a holistic health expert and founder of Pashko Wellness.

Often used as a vegan replacement for gelatin, carrageenan has come under fire in recent years as a suspected digestive irritant, which may cause gastrointestinal inflammation. In 2012, the blog FoodBabe.com (the site that exposed Subway bread for containing chemicals found in yoga mats) picked up on the issue and started urging consumers to demand products without the contested thickening agent. 

“I first wrote about this controversial additive in May 2012 after reading research presented by the Cornucopia Institute,” says Vani Hari, founder of FoodBabe.com. “I was stunned that an ingredient linked to intestinal inflammation was allowed in organic food by the USDA. With the rise of alternative milk products that contain carrageenan, I knew many people were consuming this potentially harmful ingredient unknowingly.”

Related: What’s Really in Tofurky and Other Vegetarian Turkey?

As bad buzz built, the FDA reiterated their stance that carrageenan is approved for human consumption. But grocery store shoppers grew suspicious and weren’t shy about voicing their discontent to manufacturers. WhiteWave Foods responded to consumers by agreeing to phase out carrageenan. In a press release announcing their decision, the company says that though they consider the ingredient to be safe, “Our consumers have expressed a desire for products without it and we are listening!”

Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, RDN, director of sports nutrition at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine, says people with pre-existing gastrointestinal issues, such as Crohn’s disease, should consider steering clear of foods containing carrageenan, saying they could potentially be destructive to the GI tract and cause “a change in bowel movements, discomfort in lower intestinal tracts, or nausea.” 

Public interest groups such as The Cornucopia Institute have pointed to animal studies, which indicate that carrageenan could be a potential carcinogen. “That, and the fact that it may be inflammatory to the gastrointestinal tract, are the concerns,” Bonci says. “And even though there aren’t a lot of human studies, there is enough concern that companies like Silk are saying they will take it out.” Bonci says she applauds WhiteWave Foods for their efforts to listen to consumers and banish carrageenan from their products, and hopes other brands will follow suit. 

Bonci adds that just because a food is sold at a health store, or is labeled organic or GMO-free, doesn’t mean its ingredients are necessarily good for you. 

“Soy milk is a good product; almond milk is a good product,” Bonci says. “But if someone is having health issues, they may want to go beyond the packaging and really look at the ingredients label.”

Will you be looking for milk products without carrageenan in the future? Tell us where you stand in the comments.

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