Stephen Hawking has recently been quoted as saying “philosophy is dead” (or at least that little machine he speaks through did) and I couldn’t disagree with him more. Philosophy is alive and well in natural medicine; in order to believe in vis Medicatrix naturae (Latin for “by the healing power of nature”) one must believe in the wisdom of nature. We may need science to understand more about it; but when we can point to a long tradition of safe use that is a philosophical kind of data (more in the realm of say -ethnobotany) that we should not ignore.
Science seats itself on a lofty perch, the sometimes overly-haughty halls of academia. While I love a good double-blind study as much as the human or herbalist – give me the good ole common sense parameters derived from hundreds, even thousands, of years of safe and effective use over a narrow study that can be spun and reinterpreted ad nauseum.
One possible victim of that spinful extrapolation is a sea vegetable called Irish Moss, also called carageenan moss, which grows abundantly in the Atlantic ocean. Irish Moss (Chondrus crispus) is a type of red algae, used in traditional cultures as a food and a medicine. It is also best known commercially as a source for carageenan (a polysaccharide fraction naturally occuring in the plant) to be extracted from.
Carageenan is used in industry as a plant-based alternative to gelatin, and as a thickener and stabilizer in processed food products. Somewhat alarmingly, in animal studies a high dose of carageenan injected in vivo has been shown to cause severe inflammation. This kind of animal study data on the carageenan polysaccharides is distrurbing, if not altogether damning.
Irish Moss on the other hand, is now being condemened – apparently based almost solely conjecture from scientists – because it contains carageenan. This seems to me to be a leap of faith that defies both philosophy and science; and a big extrapolation that is contradicted by thousands of years of cultural use of Irish Moss. It is what is commonly knows as discarding the baby along with the bath water.
In Ireland (not surprisingly) Irish Moss is mixed with whiskey and spices to make a type of pudding. In Jamaica it is used medicinally as an aphrodisiac. In Venezuela it is boiled in milk and used a home remedy for sore throat and chest congestion.
These traditional uses support the huge difference between Irish moss and carageenan. It would be presumptuous to assume that a food with hundreds if not thousands of years of culinary and medicinal use is in fact dangerous and worth avoiding. We need to learn how to properly weigh the information in modern scientific analysis, rather than being reactive to it. Always put food first.