Q: I am vegan and use coconut, soy and almond milk and yogurt to substitute for animal products. I read about an additive, carrageenan, that can cause stomach problems. What is it and should it be avoided?
A: Carrageenan comes from a red seaweed or algae that is found off Ireland. The seaweed has been used for hundreds of years to make a sort of pudding, and an extract made from it is now a common food additive. It’s used to give products a thick, creamy texture, so it’s popular in organic products to replace gelatin, which is animal-based.
Some studies indicate that it may cause intestinal inflammation and could be associated with tumors. Note the use of the words “may” and “could be.” The findings aren’t definitive. It’s been suggested that the effects have been observed in lab rats given large amounts, more than humans would commonly consume.
The Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. National Organic Standards Board allow carrageenan as a food additive. The World Health Organization also concluded it’s safe.
Some companies are removing it, including Stonyfield and Organic Valley; others, including Silk and Horizon, continue to use it.
Some sources suggest it’s better to consume a little carrageenan if that allows you to continue to use dairy substitutes because the known advantage outweighs the unknown risk. But if you have a history of intestinal disease, you should be cautious.
Q: Is there a difference between anise and fennel? I use fennel because I can’t find anise in local stores.
A. Fennel and anise have similar, licorice-like flavors. But the form is different.
Florence fennel, the type you usually see in markets, is a root vegetable with a feathery frond. The bulbous root can be sliced and cooked like a vegetable, while the frond can be minced and used the way you’d use a fresh herb. The flavor is similar to anise, but much milder, sweeter and more delicate. Fennel seed, usually dried and used to flavor sausage, comes from a related plant called common fennel.
Anise is classified as a spice. You rarely encounter the plant, just the seed, sometimes called aniseed. It’s used to flavor a lot of things, such as sweets, and particularly beverages common in Mediterranean countries, like pastis (France), anisette (Italy) and ouzo (Greece).
You’re most likely to find dried anise in the spice section of a well-stocked supermarket, particularly in areas of the country where there are large populations of people of Italian descent. Dried fennel seed should be easy to find in supermarket spice sections.