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Carrageenan is a common food additive with no nutritional value. It is extracted from a red seaweed, Chondrus crispus, popularly known as Irish moss, and is used as a thickener and emulsifier to improve the texture of ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, soy milk, and other processed foods.
Some animal studies have linked “degraded” forms of carrageenan (the type not used in food) to ulcerations and cancers of the gastrointestinal tract. More worrisome, undegraded carrageenan – the type that is widely used in foods – has now also been associated with malignancies and stomach problems. And it appears that acid digestion, heating, bacterial action and mechanical processing can all accelerate degradation of food-grade carrageenan.
Joanne K. Tobacman, MD, who has published multiple peer-reviewed studies on the biological effects of carrageenan, believes that all forms of it are harmful. She has found that exposure to it, in the amounts contained in processed foods, causes inflammation in the body. That’s concerning, since chronic inflammation is a root cause of many serious diseases, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, coronary artery disease, and cancer.
Dr. Tobacman notes that researchers have used carrageenan to cause inflammation in tissues in order to test the anti-inflammatory properties of new drugs. And she has reported that when laboratory mice are exposed to low concentrations of carrageenan for 18 days, they develop “profound” glucose intolerance and impaired insulin action, both of which can lead to diabetes.
A study by researchers in Canada and at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published in 2017 found that consuming carrageenan can lead to ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The research, conducted in animals, revealed that in most – but not all – cases carrageenan promoted intestinal ulcerations and other changes similar to those seen in humans with IBD. (Because of the potential health risks, no such studies have been done in humans.) The investigators noted that carrageenan is widely used in processed foods eaten by children and that the incidence rate of IBD among kids has been increasing.
Despite such findings, carrageenan is still approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an additive and remains in wide use in many food products. The European Union has banned it in infant formula, but no such step has been taken in the U.S.
I recommend avoiding regular consumption of foods containing carrageenan. This is especially important for persons with inflammatory bowel disease.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
John Vincent Martino et al, “The Role of Carrageenan and Carboxymethylcellulose in the Development of Intestinal Inflammation,” Frontiers in Pediatrics, May 1, 2017, doi” 10.3389/fped.2017.00096
- What is Carrageenan and Is It Bad for You?
- So, What is Carrageenan?
- Uses for Carrageenan
- What is Carrageenan – The History of Carrageenan and Why it’s Controversial
- What is Carrageenan – Possible Dangers of Carrageenan
- What is Carrageenan – Studies about Carrageenan
- What is Carrageenan – Shop for Carrageenan Free Products
- Is Carrageenan Safe?
- Is Carrageenan safe?
- What is Carrageenan?
- Why is there concern about Carrageenan?
- How do we know that Carrageenan is a safe food additive?
- How do we know that carrageenan is a safe food additive?
- Other studies and our take on the research
- Is Carrageenan Safe To Eat?
- What’s the Deal with Carrageenan?
- Carrageenan Safety
- Carrageenan a Potential Carcinogen
- What is Carrageenan? Is it Harmful?
- What Is Carrageenan and Is It Safe?
- What is carrageenan?
- Is carrageenan healthy?
- Is carrageenan dangerous?
- So is carrageenan safe?
- The Final Word On Carrageenan
What is Carrageenan and Is It Bad for You?
What is carrageenan? Carrageenan is an additive that is commonly found in the foods we eat every day. Natural food stores sell products such as organic yogurt, tofu, coconut milk, baby formula, and nitrite-free deli meat with carrageenan.
When you see this chemical in your health food products, you will most likely assume that it is not harmful. However, it is not as clear as you may think. There are some safe food additives; however, carrageenan is not particularly good.
Ultimately, carrageenan side effects may not be as dangerous as people make it out to be.
So, What is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan comes from red algae or seaweed. It was first processed in the 1930s by an alkaline method. Surprisingly, if you make this seaweed in an acidic solution, you will get “degraded Carrageenan” which can actually cause inflammation. Poligeenan, or degraded carrageenan, is used for drug trials with lab animals. Many are surprised that the disease-creating carrageenan is a few PH points away from its “natural” food ingredient.
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Uses for Carrageenan
Carrageenan is used for two specific purposes:
Carrageenan does not have nutrition or flavor, but it works as a binder and thickening agent in a variety of foods, such as toothpaste. (1)
Carrageenan is an active ingredient in medicines to treat coughs and stomach issues. It works by decreasing pain and swelling. Acidic carrageenan is used as a laxative and to treat peptic ulcers. (1)
It’s basically impossible to avoid carrageenan if you live in the United States.
What is Carrageenan – The History of Carrageenan and Why it’s Controversial
It’s interesting that carrageenan is used as a laxative because it is connected to many gut health, or gastrointestinal (GI), conditions since the 1960s. (2) The FDA considered limiting dietary carrageenan in 1972, but it did not succeed. (3) Carrageenan’s history is fascinating because it changes priorities in health circles over the past few decades. Today, health experts are not sure how to address the situation. The Nineteenth International Seaweed Symposium in 2009 showed four major public controversies over the safety of carrageenan makes this fact:
“It is concluded that current assessments of risk associated with carrageenan have, in some contexts, failed to take into account the full spectrum of safety assessments that have been carried out and the maturing of food additive regulations thereby allowing a myth to continue.” (4)
Why is there a myth? Because many claim that carrageenan is not safe for human consumption.
What is Carrageenan – Possible Dangers of Carrageenan
Researchers quote one of these many studies to link the seaweed food additive to:
Before we agree with all of the research that brushing our teeth with carrageenan is going to cause all of these diseases, we must ask the following:
Was degraded or undegraded carrageenan used?
Some of these studies do not indicate which type of carrageenan was used. In 1992, rats were fed carrageenan and poligeenan fibers for 91 days. They had a temporary increase in cancer The poligeenan rats did not recover and their cancer grew 2 to 11 times the amount of the carrageenan rats. The carrageenan rats went back to normal after the study. (17)
What was the dosage?
These studies gave large amounts of carrageenan to lab rats. In 1998, the FDA did a study where male rats were fed fiber free or fiber supplemented diet with 10 percent wheat, 5 percent guar gum, or 5 percent carrageenan for four weeks. The researchers proved that carrageenan increased the rats risk of developing cancer four times more than other diets. This was based on the measurement of thymidine kinase enzyme specific activity, which is a marker for colon cancer. It seems frightening, but consuming 5 percent of carrageenan each day is a lot more than the average person takes in.
Also, these studies use intravenous injections to deliver the carrageenan into the lab animals. Although they have a big impact on the immune system, they are not orally administered. (18)
The Critical Reviews in Toxicology support the theory that eating small amounts of carrageenan may not be harmful.
“Based on the many animal subchronic and chronic toxicity studies, has been found to affect the immune system, as judged by lack of effects on organ histopathology, clinical chemistry, hematology, normal health, and the lack of target organ toxicities. In these studies, animals consumed at orders of magnitude above levels of CGN in the human diet:> 1000 mg/kg/d in animals compared to 18-40mg/kg/d in the human diet” (19)
Joanne Tobacman, MD is an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois of Chicago, and she states that “carrageenan exposure clearly causes inflammation; the amount of carrageenan in food products is sufficient to cause inflammation; and degraded carrageenan and food-grade carrageenan are both harmful.” (20)
What is Carrageenan – Studies about Carrageenan
What do we believe? Is this additive bad for us? Ultimately, the jury is still out.
Many sources show that eliminating carrageenan from diets can help individuals with gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, IBS, and inflammatory bowel disease. (21) The Cornucopia Institute says that “animal studies have repeatedly shown that food-grade carrageenan causes gastrointestinal inflammation and higher rates of intestinal lesions, ulcerations, and even malignant tumors.” (20)
However, not all of the experts agree with the 1991 study.
“Food grade carrageenan is a safe natural product prepared from seaweed. Its addition to food imparts many desirable characteristics which allow it to be used continuously for centuries. The long safe history of this natural food additive is confirmed by negative results in subchronic and chronic feeding studies in many animal species, mutagenicity studies and reproductive toxicity studies.” (22)
The Critical Reviews in Toxicology supported this view in 2014 with the following facts- (19)
- Carrageenan in infant formula has been safe in baboon and human studies
- Dietary carrageenan is not linked to cancer, tumors, gene toxicity, developmental or reproductive effects
- Carrageenan can cause immune dysfunction when given intravenously and not consumed orally
- Up to 5 percent in the human diet, carrageenan does not cause intestinal ulceration
- Soft stools and diarrhea are carrageenan side effects, which are normal for non-digestible fibers
- Carrageenan does not impact nutrient absorption
- Carrageenan is not absorbed or metabolized by our bodies, which means it flows through the GI tract like other fibers and leave through feces
Additionally, some studies infer that carrageenan encourages health benefits. The National Cancer institute says it blocks the human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.
“Carrageenan is in widespread commercial use as a thickener in a variety of cosmetic and food products ranging from sexual lubricants to infant feeding formulas. Some of these products block HPV infectivity in vitro, even when diluted a million-fold.” (23)
What is Carrageenan – Shop for Carrageenan Free Products
The Cornucopia Institute made a list of organic foods with carrageenan. Watch out for hidden sources. This non-profit gives the warning to consumers-
“Always check ingredient lists carefully, and note that ingredients are not required to be listed on alcoholic beverages, which may contain carrageenan. In fact, carrageenan is commonly used to clarify beer but is not listed on the label.” (24)
You are always better off eating real food and not isolated compounds from food. A small amount of carrageenan is most likely not going to harm you. It’s best to take precaution and avoid products with carrageenan to be safe.
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August 2018 Issue
Ask the Expert: What’s the Deal With Carrageenan?
By Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN
Vol. 20, No. 8, P. 10
Q: Lately, there’s been a great deal of controversy around carrageenan. What is it, why is it a contentious topic, and is it safe to eat?
A: Carrageenan is a food gum that’s been used for decades as a food additive. There’s been much controversy on its use and safety, with some in vitro studies showing harm at certain levels of exposure, and many consumers have called for its removal from food products. That said, long-standing research shows that carrageenan is safe for human consumption.
What Is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is derived from red seaweed and is used as a thickener, emulsifier, and stabilizer in a wide variety of foods including ice cream, chocolate milk, infant formula, and plant-based milk alternatives such as soy, almond, coconut, and hemp. In certain vegan foods, it’s used as an alternative to animal-derived gelatin. It has no nutritive value.
Controversy and Safety Profile
Many regulatory agencies have deemed the use of carrageenan as a food additive to be safe, including the FDA, European Commission Health & Consumer Protection,1 and the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives.2 Since 1970, the expert committee has assessed the safety of carrageenan eight times. In its latest review, the committee reviewed 77 studies and didn’t find evidence of any toxicological concerns. One of the most recent studies on carrageenan, published in Food Toxicology and Chemistry, found that carrageenan doesn’t cross the intestinal epithelium, induce oxidative stress, nor cause intestinal inflammation.3
However, many food companies are choosing to remove carrageenan because of consumer demands based on fear of carrageenan’s lack of safety. These fears are rooted in several studies that challenge its safety, some of which have concluded that it contributes to fasting hyperglycemia,4 inflammation, and cancer.5 However, a 2017 review of carrageenan’s safety published in Nutrition Today states, “It is important to recognize that data obtained from in vitro cell-based models stimulated with an artificially high or unnatural exposure of the compound in question cannot be equated with in vivo human health.”6 The review provides an in-depth look at the several studies claiming carrageenan’s harmful effects and provides a biochemical explanation as to why each doesn’t apply to carrageenan when used as a food additive. The researchers further concluded, “The energy from debate over its possible health risks illustrates how important it is to understand how laboratory and translational research are conducted, linked with public health policy and regulations, and translated to practical nutrition and health messages.”
Although carrageenan has been repeatedly deemed safe for use as a food additive, consumers continue to demand its removal from food products. In addition, the National Organic Standards Board has recommended its removal from the organic food supply (though the USDA ignored this recommendation), giving credence to consumers’ fears. Unfortunately, finding a replacement that acts like carrageenan is no easy feat and may lead food manufacturers to use less-researched food additives for which long-term safety and appropriate use levels are unknown.
Recommendation for Clients
Today, consumers are questioning every ingredient that goes into a food, and practitioners should expect clients to challenge ingredients’ safety. In the case of carrageenan, there’s a lack of applicable scientific evidence supporting its purported harmful effects. However, not all clients will be convinced of its safety. For those who wish to reduce intake or exclude carrageenan from their diet, recommend they purchase fewer packaged foods, check ingredient lists, and/or consume less food in general (if healthful for the client). In addition, if clients can grow and preserve their own food, they can reduce their intake of carrageenan.
— Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is the founder of Toby Amidor Nutrition (http://tobyamidornutrition.com) and a Wall Street Journal best-selling author. Her four cookbooks are Smart Meal Prep for Beginners, The Easy 5-Ingredient Healthy Cookbook, The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook, and The Greek Yogurt Kitchen. She’s a nutrition expert for FoodNetwork.com and a contributor to US News Eat + Run, Muscle&Fitness.com, and MensJournal.com.
2. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; World Health Organization. Safety evaluation of certain food additives. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/171781/9789240693982_eng.pdf;
jsessionid=F279EDA856DF8F4CF400CFDCC9BCD470?sequence=3. Published 2015.
3. McKim JM Jr, Baas H, Rice GP, Willoughby JA Sr, Weiner ML, Blakemore W. Effects of carrageenan on cell permeability, cytotoxicity, and cytokine gene expression in human intestinal and hepatic cell lines. Food Chem Toxicol. 2016;96:1-10.
4. Bhattacharyya S, Feferman L, Unterman T, Tobacman JK. Exposure to common food additive carrageenan alone leads to fasting hyperglycemia and in combination with high fat diet exacerbates glucose intolerance and hyperlipidemia without effect on weight. J Diabetes Res. 2015;2015:513429.
5. Bhattacharyya S, Dudeja PK, Tobacman JK. Tumor necrosis factor alpha-induced inflammation increased but apoptosis is inhibited by common food additive carrageenan. J Biol Chem. 2010;285(50):39511-39522.
6. Clemens R, Pressman P. Food gums: a primer on carrageenan. Nutr Today. 2017;52(5):258-260.
Is Carrageenan Safe?
As a leader in innovative plant-based foods, Follow Your Heart is committed to the quality and safety of our ingredients. One ingredient that is particularly in the spotlight is carrageenan. Some Follow Your Heart products contain carrageenan and we would like to provide you with information about why we choose to use it and why we are confident the carrageenan that we use is a safe food ingredient in our products.
Is Carrageenan safe?
Yes, our extensive research has led us to conclude that food-grade carrageenan is safe to eat.
What is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is an ingredient derived from red seaweed that works as a thickener in foods. The name Carrageenan is derived from “ species of seaweed known as Carrageen Moss or Irish Moss in England, and Carraigin in Ireland. Carraigin has been used in Ireland since 400 AD as a gelatin and as a home remedy to cure coughs and colds (1).”
Why is there concern about Carrageenan?
There are two forms of carrageenan: food-grade and degraded. Food grade carrageenan has been used for hundreds of years and has been extensively reviewed and approved for use in foods. Degraded carrageenan was found to be harmful, but is not used in foods, as it does not provide any thickening properties. Even though degraded carrageenan and food-grade carrageenan are different, the harmful effects of carrageenan in its degraded form have been mistakenly associated with food-grade carrageenan.
How do we know that Carrageenan is a safe food additive?
Food-grade carrageenan has been independently evaluated by the Joint FAO*/WHO** Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), an international panel of expert toxicologists who review data and develop recommendations about food ingredients. JECFA determined that food-grade carrageenan was a safe food additive with no limits on its use in food.
Follow Your Heart is committed to the quality and safety of our ingredients. We know that our customers expect us to use only the highest quality and healthiest ingredients available, and we do everything we can to satisfy those expectations. We feel confident in our choice to use food-grade carrageenan and its alignment with our mission to make wholesome, healthy plant-based foods. You can read more about the research we conducted to make our decision below. If you have any other questions, please email us at [email protected]
Here’s the summary of our research:
Carrageenan, an ingredient derived from various species of red seaweed, has been used for hundreds of years as a thickener in foods (2) and was first made commercially in 1940 for chocolate milk and junket (3), a milk dessert similar to pudding. In the mid 1960’s, it was common for doctors to recommend carrageenan to reduce pain associated with peptic ulcers. The concentration needed to provide ulcer relief created a gel that was extremely viscous and unpleasant to consume. Subsequently, degraded carrageenan, also known as poligeenan, was created. Degraded carrageenan is produced by hydrolyzing native (food grade) carrageenan which cuts bonds and makes the molecules smaller thus removing their thickening properties. Soon, degraded carrageenan was found to be harmful and its use for ulcer treatment was discontinued. Since the function of carrageenan used in foods is to thicken, degraded carrageenan, having little or no thickening properties, never had a use in foods. Even though degraded carrageenan and food-grade carrageenan are different, the harmful effects of carrageenan in its degraded form have been mistakenly associated with food-grade carrageenan.
The driving force behind concerns regarding carrageenan’s safety is attributed to an article written by Dr. Joanne Tobacman (4). Most of the studies cited in her article report on degraded carrageenan (poligeenan). She argues that even food-grade carrageenan is not safe from having significant levels of degraded carrageenan because the acids in our stomach as well as certain bacteria might break it down into degraded carrageenan. This is not a claim supported by human or animal studies. Tobacman references studies that simulate gastric acid effects on carrageenan and the resulting presence of degraded carrageenan. However, a study in 1969 by Marcus and Watt explains that “poligeenan with an average molecular weight of about 20,000 daltons has none of the food functions of carrageenan whose average molecular weight is never lower than 100,000 daltons and is usually much higher.” Therefore, comparing “digested” carrageenan to poligeenan is a false equivalency.
More recently, “scientific assessments of carrageenan have included short term and long term generational studies involving different dosages of degraded and non-degraded forms and various animal studies … all of the studies supported the safety of carrageenan for use in foods. Regulatory authorities saw no reason to question the safety of carrageenan as long as the average molecular weight was 100,000 daltons or higher.” The regulations of carrageenan molecular sizes were modified to insure that the food-grade carrageenan in foods was never lower than that limit, and testing methods were introduced to enforce these limits (5).
Tobacman also references studies that show that native carrageenan can promote colonic tumors in rats; however, the carrageenan in these studies made up anywhere between 2.5% and 15% of the rats’ total diets. In contrast, foods that contain carrageenan have the ingredient at tenths (.1%) or hundredths (.01%) of a percent within the food and these foods make up only a small fraction of our overall diet.
How do we know that carrageenan is a safe food additive?
Dr. Tobacman’s research was reviewed by the Joint FAO*/WHO** Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), an independent international panel of expert toxicologists who review data and develop recommendations pertaining to food ingredients. Their review of the study, and of carrageenan, included an evaluation of degradation of carrageenan and “public speculation of the harmful gastrointestinal effects” of carrageenan. As a result of the evaluation, the JECFA committee determined that the studies of carrageenan on laboratory animals were conducted with high levels of degraded carrageenan (poligeenan) and that food-grade carrageenan was a safe food additive with no limits on its use in food. Those studies used a different form of carrageenan and were tested only at high use levels. The JECFA determined that carrageenan was a safe food additive with no limits on its use in food (6) and “assigned it an acceptable daily intake (ADI) of “not specified” the most favorable category. An ADI of 0-75mg/kg body weight is established in the EU” and is allowed to be used as needed (7).
Other studies and our take on the research
Since Tobacman’s aforementioned article, she also wrote a paper noting that bench-top invitro experiments showed interactions between carrageenan and various organ cells (8). These experiments are considered invalid because ingested carrageenan does not pass the blood-gut barrier to interact with organ cells (6). She also wrote a paper noting the “time-trend” that carrageenan consumption and the incidence of breast cancer both increased in the 20th century (9). The European Commission Scientific Committee for Food stated that such correlations might be found for any food or chemical which has increased in prevalence during the 20th century (10). We think that saying carrageenan must induce breast cancer because breast cancer incidence and carrageenan consumption both increase during the 20th century is like saying that listening to Jimi Hendrix and the prevalence of rock n roll music must also induce breast cancer.
We feel that she is doing her best to defend her case against food-grade carrageenan regardless of the science behind the arguments and is not recognizing the true difference between degraded carrageenan and food-grade carrageenan. The scientific literature we’ve read supports the safety of carrageenan and even shows carrageenan to inhibit cancer cell growth due to its enhancement of the immune system (11).
We also invite you to not just take our word for it, and welcome you to read some of the research on your own. Two good places to start are “Public Health and Carrageenan Regulation” and “Carrageenan: a review”. If you have any other questions, please email us at [email protected]
*FAO = Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
**WHO = World Health Organization
1 Carrageenan: a review from Veterinarni Medicina, 58, 2013 (4): 187–205 http://vri.cz/docs/vetmed/58-4-187.pdf
2 Stanley N (1987) Production, properties and uses of carrageenan. In:McHugh DF (ed.) Production and utilization of products from commercial seaweeds, vol 288. FAO, Rome
3 Champman VJ (1950) Seaweeds and their uses. 1st ed. Camelot Press, London
4 Tobacman JK (2001) Review of harmful gastrointestinaleffects of carrageenan in animal experiments. Environ Health Perspect 109:983-994.
5 Marcus AJ, Watt J (1969) Ulcerative colitis guinea-pig caused by seaweed extract. J Pharmceut Pharmacol 21:187.
6 Watson DB (2008) Public health and carrageenan regulation: a review and analysis. J Appl Phycol 20:505-513.
7 Weiner ML, Nuber D, Blakemore WR, Harriman JF, Cohen SM (2007) A 90-day dietary study on kappa carrageenan with emphasis on the gastroinstestinal tract. Food Chem Toxicol 45:98-106.
8 Borthakur A, Bhattacharyya S, Dudeja PK, Tobacman JK (2007) Carrageenan induces interleukin-8 production through distinct Bc110 pathway in normal human colonic epithelial cells. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol 292:G829-G838.
9 Tobacman JK, Wallace RB, Zimmerman MB (2001) Consumption of carrageenan and other water-soluble polymers used as food additives and incidence of mammary carcinoma. Med Hypotheses 56:589-598.
10 Scientific Committee on Food (2003) Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Food on carrageenan. Brussels: European Commission; 5 March. (SCF/CS/ADD/EMU/199 Final)
*Photos courtesy of the wonderful people over at Seaweed Consulting.
Is Carrageenan Safe To Eat?
Carrageenan is a broad term used to describe a variety of food-grade polysaccarhides (and a non food-grade derivative which is technically known as poligeenan) obtained from many different species of seaweed. Food-grade carrageenan has been used in cooking for hundreds of years as a thickening, stabilizing and gelling agent. Carrageenan is commercially produced in three forms: iota, kappa and lambda. Each form is derived from different species of seaweed, possess different molecular structures and are used for different purposes in food applications. Lambda carrageenan is widely used in many commercial vegan foods, such as salad dressings, veggie dogs, plant milks and ice creams, just to name a few (it has since been replaced with gellan gum in many commercial vegan foods). Irish Moss (Chondrus crispus) is a commonly known source of carrageenan (it contains about 55% by weight) and is frequently used in the homebrewing of beer as a clarifying agent.
For the block and wheel cheeses in The Non-Dairy Evolution Cookbook, kappa carrageenan is used as a firming agent to provide textures ranging from soft to very firm. It is essential for producing the finest non-dairy cheeses that mimic dairy cheeses in texture and melt-ability. Iota carrageenan is used to replace the function of gelatin in my marshmallow recipe. Please note that these specific cheeses are the only recipes that call for kappa carrageenan and the marshmallows are the only recipe that call for iota carrageenan. This keeps carrageenan consumption to a minimum.
However, I occasionally have readers who still express concerns over the inclusion of carrageenan in these recipes and I have found it necessary to defend its use. Their concern is based upon research studies of carrageenan by Dr. Joanne Tobacman, an associate professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, who made claims that this naturally occurring seaweed derivative causes gastro-intestinal inflammation and pre-cancerous lesions when fed to small laboratory animals.
What many don’t realize is that Dr. Tobacman was actually studying a moleculary degraded form of carrageenan called poligeenan, which has never been used in food applications, and is used in other applications such as barium contrast solution for X-rays and CT scans (unfortunately, the broad term “carrageenan” is often and erroneously used to describe both poligeenan and food-grade carrageenan, which causes confusion between the two). She then suggested that human digestive acids can convert food-grade carrageenan into the degraded form, but without any living organism studies to support her theory. Conducting a controlled study of food-grade carrageenan would seemingly be impossible since the term does not refer to a single substance derived from a single source.
Dr. Tobacman filed a petition with the FDA in 2008 asking a revocation of carrageenan as a food additive, but the FDA denied her petition in June of 2012. She also lobbied the National Organic Standards Board and was rejected. Her research credibility is also flawed by the fact that she tried to have carrageenan declared as an unsafe food additive based upon weak technical arguments a decade before the University research began. Food regulatory agencies in the United States, the European Union and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) repeatedly review and continue to approve carrageenan as a safe food additive.
Regardless of the flawed studies and rejected theories, a number of professional and self-appointed consumer watchdogs and health advocates have revived Dr. Tobacman’s anti-carrageenan crusade, producing numerous web pages filled with words condemning carrageenan as an unsafe food additive for human consumption. This negative media hype has prompted a demand for food companies to remove carrageenan as a food additive. While some food companies are yielding to this consumer pressure, other food companies are treading more cautiously since the research studies are flawed and scientific evidence is lacking.
Joy Dubost, PhD, RD, CSSD, a food scientist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, believes the FDA is correct in taking a slow and steady approach, and she sees no reason to sound the alarm about carrageenan. She believes researchers will continue to study the effects of carrageenan but says she has no plans to alter her advice to clients based on the current scientific literature. “Now, with that said, there’s still individual choice,” Dubost says. “So if consumers are concerned about carrageenan or feel that they may be having a specific flare-up, then of course I’m going to advise them that they may want to read the labels. Some companies are removing it from their products, but there are quite a few that aren’t. The key would be reading the product label and the ingredient statement. But at this point, as far as general guidance, I would not say to avoid it based on the scientific evidence.”
Poligeenan (previously known as “degraded carrageenan” in scientific and regulatory publications) is considered a possible carcinogen to humans; food-grade carrageenan is not. The only relationship between food grade carrageenan and poligeenan is that carrageenan is the starting material for creating poligeenan. Poligeenan is not an inherent component of carrageenan and cannot be produced in the digestive tract from carrageenan-containing foods because the production process for poligeenan requires high temperature treatment of carrageenan with strong acids for an extended period of time. This completely alters its molecular structure and molecular weight and renders it useless for food applications.
Animal feeding studies which began in the 1960s have demonstrated that once poligeenan enters the blood stream in large enough amounts, pre-cancerous lesions begin to form, but these lesions have never been observed in animals fed with foods containing food-grade carrageenan. Food-grade carrageenan passes through the digestive system intact, much like food fiber. In fact, food-grade carrageenan is a combination of soluble and insoluble nutritional fiber. Even if food-grade carrageenan had exhibited toxicity in small animals, one cannot make an assumption that human biology will respond the same way, especially when small laboratory animals are force fed amounts much larger than a human would ever consume. This would be like saying, “since chocolate is toxic to dogs it must therefore be toxic to humans”. And since when do vegans rely upon animal research studies, the very practice which we so vehemently oppose?
The Standard American Diet (SAD) consists of a high percentage of processed, animal-based foods loaded with preservatives, hormones, artificial dyes and other chemicals. Making such claims about food-grade carrageenan without also ruling out these factors is scientifically invalid. Negative effects can be linked to just about any food or food ingredient that is consumed in excess or by individuals who are sensitive or allergic. This same ingredient bashing has occurred with soy products, gluten, plant oils – and now gellan gum.
Consumer watchdogs have not conducted any controlled laboratory experiments themselves and are merely repeating inaccurate conclusions based upon Dr. Tobacman’s flawed studies (which have been repeatedly rejected by the scientific community). This kind of fear mongering can be very damaging to the non-dairy food movement. These individuals would do far more service to consumers by researching their sources thoroughly and presenting only what can be substantiated by good science. Unfortunately we live in an era of media frenzy that rewards controversy.
While it’s true that some people may be sensitive to food-grade carrageenan, this is not due to toxicity but due to its nature as a food fiber. Psyllium is also an inert and non-toxic food fiber and ingestion can cause bloating and cramping in sensitive individuals. Consuming too many raw greens can also cause intestinal distress in some individuals but this doesn’t suggest that raw greens are toxic. Stomach discomfort in sensitive individuals is a far cry from the misguided claims that food-grade carrageenan causes intestinal lesions and is a proven carcinogen. This has never been demonstrated or proven in humans. If this were true, federal law would require labeling of any food item containing carrageenan as potentially cancer-causing. In a small percentage of the population, carrageenan may provoke an allergic response, although this can occur with many other food substances, and does not infer toxicity but rather a personal immune reaction to a particular substance.
The food-grade carrageenan used in the block and wheel cheeses in my cookbook is derived from a species of seaweed called Kappaphycus alvarezii, hence the name “kappa carrageenan”. Research has actually demonstrated that Kappaphycus alvarezii has significant anti-cancer activity. Gigartina is another species of red seaweed and is used in the extraction of lambda carrageenan, in a similar manner as Irish Moss. Gigartina is wild harvested in various forms including Gigartina Skottsbergii off the coast of Argentina and Chile, and Gigartina Stellata from the coast of France. Research has been done on Gigartina Skottsbergii in treating the herpes simplex virus, revealing that it actually stimulates an immune response that can fight the virus and keep it at bay.
I have researched both sides of the carrageenan controversy thoroughly and with an open mind. My opinion about carrageenan safety is not influenced by any carrageenan manufacturer because I don’t work for any such manufacturer. My opinion is based upon the scientific data I have examined, but more importantly by my own experience with this ingredient. I’ve been consuming kappa and iota carrageenan for several years now in the course of developing my non-dairy cheeses and plant-based marshmallows and I have never experienced a single negative side effect from its consumption. If I felt it was dangerous, I wouldn’t consume it.
The bottom line is that you’ll have to decide for yourself who and what to believe, and weigh the unproven health risks against the culinary benefits of using carrageenan. Only you can determine what’s right and wrong for your body. And don’t just rely on my opinion; do your own research – but keep an open mind. You will find many opinions in the media but they are just that – opinions. However, if you still feel certain that you are sensitive to carrageenan, or you are concerned about its use, simply avoid the block and wheel cheeses and the marshmallows in my cookbook. There are many other non-dairy recipes to choose from.
Carlucci MJ, Scolaro LA, Noseda MD, Cerezo AS, Damonte EB. Protective effect of a natural carrageenan on genital herpes simplex virus infection in mice. Antiviral Res. 2004 Nov;64(2):137-41. PubMed PMID: 15498610.
Carlucci MJ, Ciancia M, Matulewicz MC, Cerezo AS, Damonte EB. Antiherpetic activity and mode of action of natural carrageenans of diverse structural types. Antiviral Res. 1999 Sep;43(2):93-102. PubMed PMID: 10517311.
Carlucci MJ, Scolaro LA, Damonte EB. Inhibitory action of natural carrageenans on Herpes simplex virus infection of mouse astrocytes. Chemotherapy. 1999 Nov-Dec;45(6):429-36. PubMed PMID: 10567773.
Stanley N (1987) Production, properties and uses of carrageenan. In:McHugh DF (ed.) Production and utilization of products from commercial seaweeds, vol 288. FAO, Rome
Champman VJ (1950) Seaweeds and their uses. 1st ed. Camelot Press, London
Tobacman JK (2001) Review of harmful gastrointestinaleffects of carrageenan in animal experiments. Environ Health Perspect 109:983-994.
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Watson DB (2008) Public health and carrageenan regulation: a review and analysis. J Appl Phycol 20:505-513.
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Borthakur A, Bhattacharyya S, Dudeja PK, Tobacman JK (2007) Carrageenan induces interleukin-8 production through distinct Bc110 pathway in normal human colonic epithelial cells. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol 292:G829-G838.
Tobacman JK, Wallace RB, Zimmerman MB (2001) Consumption of carrageenan and other water-soluble polymers used as food additives and incidence of mammary carcinoma. Med Hypotheses 56:589-598.
Scientific Committee on Food (2003) Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Food on carrageenan. Brussels: European Commission; 5 March. (SCF/CS/ADD/EMU/199 Final)
Borowitzka M, Critchley A. “Nineteenth International Seaweed Symposium: Proceedings of the 19th International Seaweed Symposium.” Springer. 2007.
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Imeson A. “Food Stabilisers, Thickeners and Gelling Agents.” Wiley-Blackwell. 2011. Natural Standard Professional Monograph. “Carrageenan (Chondrus crispus).
Tobacman JK. “Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments.” Environ Health Perspect. 2001 Oct;109(10):983-94.
What’s the Deal with Carrageenan?
It’s stringy, it’s salty, and it can be a bit smelly, which is why so many people are turned off by the idea of eating seaweed. But the funny things is, many of us are unknowingly eating the stuff on a regular basis—in the form of carrageenan.
After seaweed has been extracted from the ocean, dried, and ground into a fine powder, it becomes what we know as carrageenan. And unlike fresh iodine-rich, uber-healthy fresh seaweed, carrageenan has a different chemical structure—which means the body reacts to it differently. The ingredient has been around for centuries and was first discovered as a food thickener along the coasts Ireland. There, locals would boil it down and use the extracted material to transform their milk into thick pudding. Since then, the food industry has discovered multiple uses for the additive. Carrageenan can now be found in a range of products, including soup, infant formula, deli meat, and various beverages. “Very often, I use carrageenan in beverages,” explains Lisa Pitka, a food technologist with Mattson, a company that helps food manufacturers fine-tune their recipes. “It helps to keep product thick and creamy and from becoming unappealing to the customer.”
While food manufacturers have been relying on carrageenan as a stabilizing and thickening agent since the 1970’s, backlash against the practice has only begun to grow in recent years—mostly because no one can seem to agree if it’s safe to consume. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, European Commission, and the World Health Organization give the additive the green light, some scientists and activist groups say otherwise.
A handful of studies have found that carrageenan can cause intestinal inflammation and gastrointestinal cancer in lab animals, and some researchers speculate the additive may play a role in the development of ulcerative colitis and diabetes. Despite the fact that no human studies have been able to replicate these findings (including a much-buzzed about study recently funded by the food industry), The National Organic Standards Board voted 10 to 3 to remove the controversial additive from the list of approved ingredients in organic foods. But this doesn’t mean the ingredient will definitely be nixed from organic or conventional fare. A final decision will be made by the United States Department of Agriculture (which has supported the use of carrageenan in the past) in November 2018. If they do happen to adopt the recommendation, the ban would take about two years to go into effect.
If it seems to you like there’s not strong evidence on either side of the argument, you’re absolutely correct. Which is why it can be so difficult to decide if avoiding the additive is necessary. And really, it comes down to personal choice.
“People who have a sensitive stomach or GI tract may be more sensitive to carrageenan,” cautions Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CSCS, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. However, she notes that carrageenan is found mostly in processed and packaged foods—things that ideally should only make up only a small part of our diets. “If you are eating mainly whole, real foods, with just small amounts of processed or packaged foods, carrageenan should not be an issue,” Rumsey adds. Want to err on the side of caution anyway? Here’s how to nix carrageenan from your diet:
If carrageenan is used in a food product, it legally must appear on a food label—which is great news! That means all it takes is a quick scan of the label to find out if something you’re interested in buying contains the ingredient.
Check The List
If the idea of reading a million and one labels at the grocery store makes your head spin, we totally get it. Instead, check out The Cornucopia Institute’s buying guide, which identifies organic foods made sans carrageenan. This way you can decide what you want to buy before you head to the store.
Consider What Else May Be Irritating Your Stomach
Oftentimes, we’re not just eating carrageenan-containing foods solo, so it can be hard to tell if they’re to blame for tummy troubles. If you notice stomach irritation after eating a meal that contains the additive, you may want to also consider what else is on your plate. “If it’s easy for you to avoid carrageenan, that’s fantastic,” says Miriam Jacobson, MS, RD, CDN. “But there are so many foods that are known to be inflammatory and corrosive to digestion like gluten and sugar that I usually recommend my clients consider the effects of these things first.” If after dialing back on the sweet and carby stuff you still find that your stomach gets upset from meals that contain a bit of carrageenan, you’ll know that’s the culprit—and it’s time to nix it from your diet.
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Carrageenan has been the subject of a lot of controversy and several of you have asked me to comment. For those who may not be up to speed on the topic, let me start with a quick overview.
What Is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is an extract from a red seaweed commonly known as Irish Moss. This edible seaweed is native to the British Isles, where it’s been used in traditional cooking for hundreds of years. It’s also widely used in the food industry, mostly as a thickener and gelling agent. You’ll find it in ice cream, cottage cheese, non-dairy milks, jelly, pudding, and infant formula. Unlike gelatin, which is made from animal products, carageenan is appropriate for vegans.
Who would have thought that this ancient, natural, plant-based ingredient would become center of a swirling controversy? But it certainly has. Some scientists have presented evidence that carrageenan is highly inflammatory and toxic to the digestive tract, and claim that it may be reponsible for colitis, IBS, rheumatoid arthritis, and even colon cancer. Equally respected scientists have detailed the reasons that this evidence is flawed and misleading, concluding that there is no valid reason to ban its use.
Continue reading on QuickAndDirtyTips.com
Q: Can carrageenan cause intestinal disorders and even cancer, as I’ve read on the Internet?
A: The safety of this food additive is hotly debated. Derived from seaweed, carrageenan is used to improve the texture of many foods, including:
- ice cream
- cottage cheese
- soy milk
- salad dressing
- processed meat
- some infant formulas
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other health agencies around the world consider carrageenan safe, though some advise certain restrictions on its use.
A decade ago, however, a University of Iowa review of animal studies set off alarm bells. It linked carrageenan, particularly a “degraded” form that may be produced during food preparation and digestion, to gastrointestinal ulcerations and tumors in mice. Degraded carrageenan is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Several lab studies since then have shown that both food-grade and degraded carrageenan can cause inflammation and increased cell death in human colon cells.
Other scientists have disputed the research’s implication that people are at risk, pointing out that the animals in studies have very different intestinal systems than humans. They say there’s no evidence that carrageenan breaks down into a harmful form in people.
More human studies are needed. We don’t think it’s necessary to avoid carrageenan, but if you want to err on the side of caution, check the ingredients list. The additive is often found in processed foods that aren’t particularly healthful anyway, such as pudding and whipped cream. Alternative thickening agents that are considered safe include guar, locust bean and xanthan gums.
In 2007 the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives advised against the use of carrageenan in infant formula; it is now banned in infant formula in Europe.
Why would the average consumer decide to switch to organic food? Typical reasons include food of higher quality that is hopefully more nutritious although conventional produce grown locally and picked at the peak of ripeness would no doubt rival the nutrition of organic produce picked early and shipped long distances. Consumers also generally assume that any food labeled as USDA Organic will not contain any dangerous ingredients or chemicals like carrageenan.
After all, buying certified organic food is still the only way to avoid genetically modified ingredients as GMOs are regularly slipped into healthfoods labeled as “natural” and even those containing organic ingredients but less than 70% organic overall.
Based on these assumptions, consumers would likely be surprised and even shocked to learn that a likely human carcinogen that triggers massive gastointestinal inflammation and symptoms in many people continues to be allowed by the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) for inclusion on the list of ingredients permitted in certified organic food – food bearing the USDA Organic label!
This dangerous ingredient, carrageenan, which most consumers are unaware is lurking in so many of their beloved organic products, seems harmless enough at first glance.
Derived from seaweed, carrageenan is a highly processed food additive that has no nutritional function whatsoever.
What it does do is act as a fat replacer or stabilizer in certain types of dairy products, commercial dairy substitutes like soy milk, coconut milk, hemp seed milk, almond milk, and other processed foods.
As you can see, buying lowfat is not a good idea and not just for the fact that you are losing the valuable whole fats that satiate and steady the blood sugar. By opting for lowfat or alternative dairy products, consumers are choosing instead to consume a toxic additive that is a likely carcinogen!
Carrageenan a Potential Carcinogen
Even Dr. Andrew Weil has been telling people about carrageenan dangers since 2002.
Carrageenan is so toxic and inflaming to the human digestive system that this food additive is formally classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) as a potential human carcinogen.
Scientists first discovered that carrageenan causes gut inflammation as far back as the 1960’s. Inflammation is a very serious condition as it is a primary symptom in IBS, Crohn’s Disease, ulcerative colitis, and colon cancer as well as dozens of other diseases.
The hype from the carrageenan industry claims that “food grade” carrageenan is different from the low molecular weight, i.e., degraded carrageenan that is toxic to human cells.
This spin fails to mention that not a single sample of products containing carrageenan that were tested could be said to be free of the degraded form. Some samples contained as much as 25% low molecular weight carrageenan. This testing was conducted as part of a 2003 ruling by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food which required that a maximum of 5% degraded carrageenan be contained in a processed food which includes the additive.
Another problem is that research available since the early 1980’s indicated that even food grade carrageenan is probably converted during the digestive process to the degraded, highly toxic form. More recent research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), pinpointed the exact metabolic process by which carrageenan triggers inflammation. Shockingly, this biological event was found to mirror the way pathogenic bacteria such as salmonella wreak havoc in the gut.
The takeaway for consumers from this very discouraging NOSB ruling is to not take anything for granted just because a product is labeled USDA Organic. It still could be extremely damaging to your health!
Avoiding lowfat dairy and processed dairy substitutes is a very wise course of action. If you have a dairy allergy, learn to easily make healthy milk substitutes at home that are free of carrageenan dangers!
Be aware that most commercial pet food is loaded with carrageenan too. Check the labels to be sure your furry friends don’t suffer from its unhealthy effects as well.
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
Sources and More Information
The Cultivator, News from the Cornucopia Institute, Summer 2012
- ‘Keep in mind, too, that most commercial soy milks, especially the fortified ones, contain added salt and sweeteners (cane juice, usually) and are thickened with carrageenan (extracted from seaweed).’
- ‘Most commercial ice cream is made with carrageenan, a seaweed extract.’
- ‘The use of carrageenan as a stabilizing agent has become widespread and is very effective in keeping the cocoa ingredient bound to the milk protein.’
- ‘Also, ingredients such as carrageenan provide added stability.’
- ‘Some alternatives which produce results similar to gelatin are agar-agar, carrageenan, tapioca, sago, guar gum, pectin, and rennet.’
- ‘Neutral-type applications such as these require specific types of carrageenan to attain stability.’
- ‘The organisation is similarly developing carrageenan and is sponsoring a large safety study in women attending a family planning clinic in South Africa.’
- ‘A stabilizer such as carrageenan can help keep the calcium in suspension.’
- ‘In addition, stabilizers such as kappa carrageenan help prevent the cocoa particles from settling out in chocolate milk.’
- ‘Similar vegetable gums, with the same possible adverse effects, are carrageenan, gum tragacanth, and carob or locust bean gum.’
- ‘It also reduced the paw edema induced by carrageenan in rats.’
What is Carrageenan? Is it Harmful?
An overused yet not-so-known additive found in many edible products, carrageenan might or might not be the best for your health. Find out here. Not many of us know about all the additives that are used in the processed foods we consume on a day to day basis. Carrageenan is one such ingredient that are present in most processed edible items.
It is a common perception that any ingredient added to a ‘healthy food’ is generally safe to eat, however, that may not be the case. Extracted from a red seaweed called Irish moss, carrageenan is used as an emulsifier and thickener to improvise the texture of numerous processed foods and dairy products including yoghurt, soy milk, cottage cheese, coconut milk and cold-cuts to name a few. Carrageenan, majorly known for their inflammatory properties, is generally indigestible and has zero nutritional value. Hence, it may not be considered safe for consumption.
Why its bad for your health
Although procured from a natural resource, carrageenan is a destructive agent for our digestive system due to its molecular weight which triggers the immune system leading to ulcers and in severe cases it may cause internal bleeding. Consumption of any edible product on a regular basis that consists of carrageenan may cause inflammation in the body which can put you at the risk of chronic ailments. (Also read: 9 Dangerous Additives That May Be Lurking in The Food You Buy)
The conflicting story
Carrageenan may impact your digestive health negatively, but it is apparently used for curing cough, bronchitis, tuberculosis and various other intestinal problems. The food industry asserts that carrageenan has no side effects up to a five percent dose included in the diet. Further, no medical history has been reported for cancer, tumor or any toxicity after consumption of carrageenan.
Foods like ice cream, condensed milk, beer, soy milk, yogurt and processed meat are known to contain carrageenan. Other products with carrageenan may include tooth pastes, air fresheners, shampoos and cosmetic creams.
(Also read: Have You Been Including These Cancer Causing Foods in Your Diet?)
The general thumb rule for good health is that anything in excess is harmful. Carrageenan may help in the production of processed food and other products but it contains no nutritional value for the body.
CommentsIt is best to avoid additives and synthetic chemicals as much as you can and opt for food in its natural form. Read the ingredient labels before buying any product and ensure that it does not contain too many unnecessary agents.
What Is Carrageenan and Is It Safe?
We’re immediately skeptical of any ingredient that’s hard to pronounce. Add to that a reputation for inducing inflammation and potentially causing cancer and carrageenan doesn’t have a lot going for it—except that the molecule is in the majority of your favorite health foods, like protein shakes, almond milk, and cottage cheese.
But is carrageenan really as bad as it’s been made out to be? Here, everything you need to know about the ingredient and whether you really do need to steer clear of it.
What is carrageenan?
Carrageenan is a carbohydrate extracted from seaweed that’s used to thicken certain foods and improve how well other ingredients are incorporated (think: keeping cacao mixed into chocolate milk and smoothing out the grittiness of plant protein in a pre-packaged smoothie).
“Manufacturers use it in foods to improve the ‘mouth feel’ of a finished product, like making something taste creamier or smoother,” explains Utah-based nutritional biochemist Shawn Talbott, Ph.D. (Related: 7 Crazy Food Additives You Probably Missed on the Nutrition Label)
Is carrageenan healthy?
The ingredient isn’t necessarily unhealthy, but it also doesn’t add any nutritional value. While seaweed itself is quite minerally dense, commercial carrageenan is stripped of all its minerals, explains Rachele Pojednic, Ph.D., assistant professor of food science at Simmons University in Boston. Its sole purpose is to provide texture, not nutrients.
Is carrageenan dangerous?
Headlines have blasted carrageenan’s connection to inflammation in the body, maybe even colon cancer. The truth: There’s a little bit of foundation here, but mostly it’s a lot of noise and overreaction.
The controversy started in 2001 (after carrageenan had already been incorporated into food production for a number of decades) when researchers at the University of Iowa published the first study review to call out concerns that the ingredient posed a risk for everything from abdominal bloating to more serious issues like cancer.
It all came down to one molecule, poligeenan. When carrageenan is exposed to acidic environments, it can degrade into poligeenan, which is not approved to be in food and is actually classified as a potential human carcinogen, explains Seattle-based naturopathic physician Michelle Simon, Ph.D., president of the Institute for Natural Medicine.
Fast forward nearly two decades and there turns out to be some preliminary (but conflicting) evidence that suggests human stomach acid might be enough to break carrageenan down into harmful poligeenan, plus some animal studies that show even non-degraded carrageenan can cause inflammation and bowel disorders, possibly contributing to intestinal ulcers and irritable bowel disease, explains Simon. (Related: 15 Anti-Inflammatory Foods You Should Be Eating Regularly)
The issue with all this: None of these studies confirm the molecular breakdown or subsequent effects in humans, only human cells or animals.
“Carrageenan has been used in very large doses to induce inflammation in some animal models,” says Pojednic. “But, typically it’s not the form of carrageenan you find in the food supply; it is poligeenan.” And since there is no confirmation that your stomach acid actually turns the former into the latter, there’s no proof that carrageenan actually increases inflammation in the body.
“These types of rodent studies can be used to make any ingredient look bad,” says Talbott. “Any ‘healthy’ ingredient can be shown to cause inflammation in a variety of since it’s typically delivered in high-isolated doses, which has zero relevance to a balanced diet.”
So is carrageenan safe?
This is the million dollar question. While no expert we spoke to was necessarily a fan of carrageenan, in March 2018, the European food safety authorities re-reviewed carrageenan and determined the research weighed in favor of no concern for carcinogenicity (cancer-causing), genotoxicity (DNA-harming), or prenatal development, says Simon. This is also where the FDA stands.
That being said, the European authorities also acknowledged there were unanswered questions and put a five-year deadline for more science on their approval.
The Final Word On Carrageenan
“There are still important unanswered questions that relate to the true interaction between carrageenan and humans,” says Simon. “We don’t yet understand how carrageenan interacts with human physicochemical properties, its impact on digestive properties, the interaction with colonic microbiome and inflammation.” (Related: You Need Way More Nutrients for Good Gut Health)
And carrageenan certainly has no health benefits. But, until we have definite research saying otherwise, the ingredient is relatively safe to consume in small quantities.
Plus, it’s important to remember that the overall combination of ingredients in a product is more important than one questionable chemical, says Talbott. That is, if you have a choice between a high-protein, low-sugar drink that contains carrageenan or a sugar bomb with clean ingredients but no nutrients, the former is still probably your healthiest bet. (Or make your own carrageenan-free smoothies at home with these healthy vegetable smoothie recipes.)
That being said, there are better alternatives to thickening and emulsifying out there, says Talbott. Xanthan gum, locust bean gum, gum Arabic, guar gum, and alginate are all less risky additions that you should opt for in your health foods if you can.