Five years ago I was diagnosed with a carrageenan allergy, which took years to isolate and uncover because it’s such a commonly used ingredient in foods and personal care products. Over the years being allergic to carrageenan, I’ve learned to avoid it by cooking most meals at home, packing snacks wherever I go, and constantly communicating my food allergy concern when I order at restaurants, food trucks, or concession stands. That last part is hard, because not many people even know what carrageenan is. Even fewer know how prevalent it is in all types of dishes. Because it’s so commonly used across all grocery categories, it’s tough. I wanted to share some of my best tips for ordering out at restaurants with a carrageenan allergy.
Communicate the carrageenan allergy
Over communicate this if you need to, but mention it when making your reservation, with the host, and to your server. Explain that carrageenan is derived from red seaweed, but it can also go by many other names: sea moss, Irish moss, chondrus crispus extract, and preservative E407 or E407a depending on the country you’re in. Carrageenan is used as a thickener, stabilizer, and emulsifier in foods. It makes ice cream creamier, it makes salad dressing thicker, and it plumps up deli meats and rotisserie chickens. It can be used as an alternative to gelatin, so it’s often used to make foods vegan or halal friendly.
I still need to do this myself, but I’m planning on creating laminated allergy cards I can hand to restaurant servers if they want to go cross check with the chef or back-of-house staff. That’s one way to make sure this rare allergy is noted and is communicated clearly.
Core foods to flat out avoid
There are lots of foods I just flat out avoid at restaurants because the likelihood of them containing carrageenan is too high. If you are unable to clearly communicate your allergy, this is my next line of defense in preventing an allergic reaction. This list of items to avoid includes:
- any dairy drink (example: chocolate milk)
- any dairy alternative drink with soy, almond, or oat milk (example: drinks at Starbucks)
- any drink with ice cream (examples: milkshakes, floats, shakes, smoothies)
- any drink with protein powder (examples: protein shakes, smoothies)
- any drink with evaporated/condensed milk or heavy whipping cream (examples: frappés, Thai iced tea, Vietnamese iced coffee)
- any dish with yogurt
- any dish with cottage cheese
- any dish with sour cream
- any dish with cream cheese
- any dish with marscapone cheese (example: tiramisu)
- any dish with ricotta cheese (examples: lasagna, cannelloni, ravioli, cannoli, etc)
- any creamy salad or dressings (examples: ranch dressing, bleu cheese dressing, macaroni salad, potato salad)
- any creamy soup (example: clam chowder)
- anything with cold cuts (example: deli sandwiches)
- anything with imitation crab (example: California rolls)
- anything with furikake
- anything with a lot of seaweed or algae in it!
I’m more risk adverse if I’m ordering takeout and eating at home, that way if I have a reaction at least I’m home. For instance, if I need to use my Epi-pen or get to my local hospital emergency room. Also, if the restaurant I’m at uses high quality ingredients and makes everything from scratch, I feel a lot more confident ordering outside of these limits. But always, I’ll communicate I have a food allergy first.
I know, there are a lot of foods to avoid. And the list is ever-expanding. But how about looking at things with a half glass full perspective? Here are some general ways I can order at restaurants most likely avoiding carrageenan. These might be a little easier to remember on the spot!
- Coffee: ask what type and brands of dairy or plant milks the shop serves to make an informed choice, or just order coffee/espresso black
- Smoothies: skip the protein powder and ice cream, and go with a fruit and veggie based blend instead
- Salads: skip the creamy dressings, and go with an oil and vinegar combo instead
- Sushi: skip the seaweed and imitation crab, and just order sashimi or nigiri instead
- Deli: skip the cold cuts, and order a vegetarian sandwich like a caprese instead
This is a hard one for me, and I still sometimes get sad about it. Carrageenan is just too common in dessert foods for me to take the risk. It’s often in whipping cream, ice cream, puddings, crème brûlée, flan, panna cotta, tiramisu, and other types of common dessert items. I don’t often go to ice cream shops. Places like Baskin-Robbins, Cold Stone Creamery, and Salt & Straw all use carrageenan in their ice cream flavors. Sometimes the vegan or dairy free flavors are safer to go with, but not always. In my area, I love Humphry Slocombe, Smitten, and Two Dog Night Creamery because they source high quality and organic ingredients, and they don’t use carrageenan. Usually, my dessert of choice is just a glass of wine!
Fast food hits & misses
Whenever I’m on a road trip or just in a pinch, fast food chains usually offer extremely transparent allergen and ingredient information that makes me feel a lot more comfortable with a carrageenan allergy. Though there are lots of things to avoid at fast food restaurants across the board, like any and all frozen yogurt and ice cream from McDonald’s, In-N-Out, Burger King, Chick-Fil-A, and Culver’s. I also avoid most items at KFC including chicken because almost everything contains carrageenan. But because these are large companies, they do a decent job at publishing ingredient information on their websites. So surprisingly there are some go-to items I know I can enjoy without having to worry about an allergic reaction, despite being highly processed foods.
For instance, I really appreciate that the McDonald’s website has very easy to find ingredient information. I usually order any of the breaded chicken items, like the fried chicken sandwiches and McNuggets, which do not contain carrageenan currently. At Taco Bell, I can safely enjoy my favorite Doritos Locos Tacos and all the Taco Bell hot sauces. Looking up every single item on these fast food websites is certainly time consuming, but worth it for my safety.
If you’d like more tips on living, traveling, and eating with a carrageenan allergy, please follow me on Instagram! I share lifestyle content on @chelseapearl and carrageenan-free food content at @OMGfeedmeTHIS. Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures, so don’t let a rare food allergy hold you back from ever enjoying it!
Thank you to reader Meg G. for this question as it inspired this blog post! Have a question or experience with a carrageenan allergy? Let us know in the comments below!