Carrageenan gum is a substance extracted from red and purple seaweeds, consisting of a mixture of polysaccharides. It is used as a thickening or emulsifying agent in food products. You will often find this ingredient in nut milks, meat products, and yogurt.
Most food-related gums are composed of complex and variable mixtures of oligosaccharides, polysaccharides and glycoproteins with an extremely high molecular weight polysaccharide attached to a hydroxyproline-rich polypeptide backbone.
Gum reactivity can be a serious problem especially for people on a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free products often use gums as a substitute for gluten to hold ingredients together.
Gums have wide industrial uses, including:
- Food industry - stabilizers, thickening agents, gelling agents, emulsifiers, fixing agents in foods
and soft drinks
- Cosmetics - stabilizers, thickening agents, gelling agents
- Manufacturing – printing, textile, pottery, lithography.
Because of their high molecular weight (200-2,000 kDa), if the partially digested molecules of certain gums manage to get into the circulation, they would induce a very strong immune response that would result in high levels of IgG and/or IgA antibodies against the gum molecules. In a study on gum reactivities, 288 healthy subjects were evaluated for IgE and IgG immune reactivity to a set of gums used in the food industry. The gums are listed in order from most to least IgG reactive:
- mastic gum,
- locust bean gum,
- xantham gum,
- gum tragacanth,
- guar gum.
Results of this study indicates that a significant percentage of the healthy population is not only exposed to various gum products, but immunologically reacts against them.
Cross-reactive carbohydrate determinants (CCD) containing fucose and xylose exist in almost all plant extracts and thus there can be homology between repetitive polysaccharide sequences of gums with plant enzymes such as horse radish peroxidase or bromelain, pollens, trees, celery, potato, tomato, beans and pea (Figure 25). This finding gives substance to the concept that individuals may produce antibodies against the CCD of gums which then cross-react with many other foods and other environmental antigens. Therefore, immune reaction to gums may play a role in autoimmune reactivity.
Cross-reactivity of gums with various food antigens. Gums have been shown to cross-react with a variety of food proteins:
- Kidney bean
- Other gums
- Sesame albumin
- Smith F, Montgomery R. The chemistry of plant gums and mucilages. New York: Reinhold, 1959.
- Vojdani A, Vojdani C. Immune reactivities against gums. Alt Ther Health Med, (In Press), 2015.
- Su SN, Shu P, Lau GX, et al. Immunological and physicochemical studies of Bermuda grass pollen antigen BG60. J Allergy Clin Immunol, 1996; 98:486-494.
- Ogawa H, Hijikata A, Amano M, et. al. Structures and contribution to the antigenicity of oligosaccharides of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) pollen allergen Cry j 1: relationship between the structures and antigenic epitopes of plant N-linked complex type glycans. Glycoconj J, 1996; 13(4):555-566.
- Batanero E, Villalba M, Monsalve RI, et al. Cross-reactivity between the major allergen from olive pollen and unrelated glycoproteins: evidence of an epitope in glycan moiety of the allergen. J Allergey Cin Immunol, 1996; 97:1264-1271.
- Pike RN, Bagarozzi D Jr, Travis J. Immunological cross-reactivity of the major allergen from perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne), Lol p I, and the cysteine proteinase, bromelain. Int Arch Allergy Immunol, 1997; 112:412-414.
Try to remove as much carrageen from your diet as possible. Read the ingredient list of the nutrition facts labels carefully.
Here is a partial list of foods that can contain carrageenan:
- ice cream
- cottage cheese
- chocolate milk
- milk alternatives (almond milk, coconut milk)
- whipped cream
- fruit jellies
- refrigerated mousse desserts
- non-fat or low-fat salad dressing
- beer (as a clarification agent)
- deli meats, including turkey, chicken and ham
- pre-cooked poultry products
- ready-to-eat infant formula
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