02/07/2014 11:07 EST | Updated 06/05/2015 04:59 EDT

Almond Milk & Carrageenan: Stop the Panic!

The dairy-alternative market has made big waves in the last 20 years or so with the birth of soymilk back as early as the 1980s. And when you consider that roughly 60 per cent of people can't digest lactose past infancy, you can imagine that these dairy alternatives have been the saviour for many.

When I used to be an advertising executive, I was all for the soymilk extravaganza thinking it was the healthy option for my latte. But after bloating and experiencing poop details that I'll spare you from, I realized soy was out. Sure I flirted with thin, sugary rice milks until switching to unsweetened almond milk. Finally I had found my non-dairy alternative answer. Until, WAIT, carrageenan, an ingredient found in almond milk tetra-packs, was apparently evil and promoting intestinal damage and even cancer.

[Cue Melissa beating a large tetra-pack of almond milk like a piñata.]

So before you go crying over almond milk, let me just say this: stop freaking out.

Still confused over what the heck I'm talking 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. Now here is where I need to pipe in...

There are actually two different kinds of carageenan

There are actually two different kinds of carrageenan (which is derived from red algae): degraded and undegraded carrageenan. And believe it or not, they're actually very different compounds and should be treated as such. Undegraded is approved for human consumption while degraded (also known as poligeenan) is not. You see, the 2001 animal studies showing the link with cancer used poligeenan in high doses giving undegraded carrageenan a worse wrap than it should. Now this isn't to say that I'm suggesting that you run out and drink copious amounts of boxed almond milk where undegraded carrageenan is found, because I'm not. What I am saying is that as it stands, it is now a known carcinogen.

And don't get me wrong, I trust the FDA and Health Canada's opinion when it comes to approved food additives as much as I believe that we should be drinking the three to four servings of cow dairy daily. (Enter sarcasm here.)

Carrageenan acts differently within different species

It's true, there have been some animal studies linking undegraded carrageenan to intestinal damage. A recent rat study showed no ulcerations or lesions after 90 days of exposure and after 83 days and being given carrageenan at 5 per cent, pigs showed abnormalities in the intestines but no ulcerations or tumors. My point: carrageenan reacts differently within different species making it difficult to understand the effects in humans.

Carrageenan studied in water vs. food

The one thing that people don't realize about these studies is that carrageenan was given to animals with water, not food. Plus these studies were done in vitro (outside the body) rather than given to humans for obvious reasons. When you make a smoothie with almond milk, 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 per cent of a small portion our total diet).

Now again, let me say again, I'm not suggesting that you limit yourself to just boxed almond milk. However what I am saying is that if you find yourself in a pinch and decide to use boxed almond milk, don't freak out. Granted, there are people out there who will react to it and if that's you then stay clear from it and plan ahead. And for those of you who have no idea how to make your own, it's easy and there are so many options to flavour it (vanilla, cinnamon, mixing in different nuts, etc.). Generally I'll make mine a couple times a week and heck if I run out, then yes, I will buy a box of it from the store.

But in the meantime, if you want to make your own, trust me when I say its super simple to do. Here's how:

Homemade Almond Milk

1 cup almonds (soaked overnight)

5 cups water

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Pinch sea salt

Blend altogether and strain through a nut milk bag into a large mason jar.

And you know what? Sometimes, life happens and we just forget to plan ahead, so in that case, do the best you can. Forget shaming yourself because of fear driven by the media. I honestly believe that sometimes guilt can be worse than the act itself.

In the meantime, I do believe that it's important to continue asking questions and demanding that you know more about what's in your food -- so never stop. But in the meantime, don't fall down the orthorexic hole and punish yourself if your nutrition regime isn't always 100 per cent perfect. 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, realize that you do have options and the one thing you should do right this second that will do a world of good if you're feeling panicked?