If you read food labels or the side of soy or almond milk containers, then you’ve likely come across the word ‘carrageenan’. It’s a weird word. It’s an even weirder word in the context of “carrageenan-free”. My first response to reading something like that on the back of a food product is: “What is carrageenan, and why is it a selling point that it’s not an ingredient?” Fair point.
So, what is it anyway? Dr. Andrew Weil very succinctly answers this question;
“Carrageenan is a common food additive that is extracted from a red seaweed, Chondrus crispus, which is popularly known as Irish moss. Carrageenan, which has no nutritional value, has been 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 been associated with malignancies and other stomach problems.
In 2012, Joanne K. Tobacman, MD, who has published multiple peer-reviewed studies that address the biological effects of carrageenan, addressed the National Organic Standards Board on this issue and urged reconsideration of the use of carrageenan in organic foods. According to Dr. Tobacman, her research has shown that exposure to carrageenan causes inflammation and that when we consume processed foods containing it, we ingest enough to cause inflammation in our bodies. That’s a problem since chronic inflammation is a root cause of many serious diseases including heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and cancer.
Dr. Tobacman also told the board that in the past, drug investigators used carrageenan to cause inflammation in tissues to test the anti-inflammatory properties of new drugs. And she reported further 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. She maintains that both types of carrageenan are harmful and notes that, “degraded carrageenan inevitably arises from higher molecular weight (food grade) carrageenan.” Research suggests that acid digestion, heating, bacterial action and mechanical processing can all accelerate degradation of food-grade carrageenan.
Despite such findings, carrageenan is still approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as an additive and remains widely used in many food products. In fact, in 2015, the Joint Expert Committee of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization on Food Additives announced that carrageenan was “not of concern” when used in infant formula at concentrations up to 1000 milligrams per liter—even though the European Union has banned it for this use.
All told, as far as carrageenan safety goes, I recommend avoiding regular consumption of foods containing carrageenan. This is especially valuable advice for persons with inflammatory bowel disease.” (Is Carrageenan Safe?)
If you pay attention to food politics, then you probably know that the question of carrageenan’s safety has been somewhat of a lightning rod issue. In 2007, the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives advised against the use of carrageenan in infant formula, and it is now banned in infant formula in Europe. The USDA, however, decided that carrageenan is safe. That’s not the first time that this kind of disagreement has happened.
Different governments seem to have different ideas about what is and isn’t safe concerning chemicals and additives in the food that humans ingest or in the products we use, and it’s a complex issue. For example, the United States did not ban Red Dye No. 40, Yellow Dye No. 5 and No. 6 while the U.K. banned all three in 2014 citing health concerns specifically where children are concerned. As for the rest of Europe, all products containing these three dyes must carry labels warning of the dyes’ potentially adverse effects on children’s health. What about other chemicals like atrazine, formaldehyde, or even lead-based interior paints? Europe banned lead-based interior paints in 1940, and it took the United States another 38 years to finally make that leap even though the long-term adverse effects of lead exposure were well-documented. So, what’s the deal?
It comes down to policy most notably the U.S. Toxic Control Substances Control Act (TSCA) which requires a high burden of proof of harm of a substance. The European equivalent, Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, (REACH) “aims at ensuring a higher level of environmental protection through preventative” decision-making. In other words, it says that when there is substantial, credible evidence of danger to human or environmental health, protective action should be taken despite continuing scientific uncertainty.” (Banned in Europe, Safe in U.S.)
Well, and one other little loophole associated with the Food Additives Amendment of 1958 signed by President Eisenhower. “While FDA approval is required for food additives, the agency relies on studies performed by the companies seeking approval of chemicals they manufacture or want to use in making determinations about food additive safety, Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist Maricel Maffini and NRDC senior attorney Tom Neltner note in their April 2014 report (Banned in Europe, Safe in U.S.), Generally Recognized as Secret:
The 1958 law exempted from the formal, extended FDA approval process common food ingredients like vinegar and vegetable oil that are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). It may have appeared reasonable at the time, but that exemption has been stretched into a loophole that has swallowed the law. The exemption allows manufacturers to make safety determinations that the uses of their newest chemicals in food are safe without notifying the FDA. The agency’s attempts to limit these undisclosed GRAS determinations by asking industry to voluntarily inform the FDA about their chemicals are insufficient to ensure the safety of our food in today’s global marketplace with a complex food supply. Furthermore, no other developed country in the world has a system like GRAS to provide oversight of food ingredients. (Generally Recognized as Secret)
Did you catch that? If a company wants to use a new ingredient in a food product, then the FDA relies on said company’s study and results. In other words, if a company comes to the FDA and says, “Hey, I’d like to use Chemical X in this awesome new drink, but we already tested it and it’s safe. It’s all good.” Then, that’s all that is required. More than this, it doesn’t matter who does the testing. The CEO’s BFF could do the testing or not do the testing and say that he did. There is little oversight. That’s what this loophole is about.
So, what of carrageenan then? Dr. Weil gave us the lowdown on what it is and the potential health risks associated with it. Europe has banned its use in infant formula. We now know that companies in the U.S. wishing to use questionable ingredients do not have to submit them to rigorous study or much study at all. In fact, ingredients that could cause harm are still free for use in food products in the U.S. as indicated by how U.S. policy is implemented. It isn’t a black and white issue though. Believe it or not, “the global Carrageenan Market was worth USD 762.35 million as of 2016. Carrageenan has around 13.3% share of the global food & beverage hydrocolloids market.” (Carrageenan Market-Trends and Forecasts 2018-2023) This is incredibly significant particularly if you’re a carrageenan farmer, exporter, or importer. “World Carrageenan production exceeded 56,000 tons as of 2013, and it has a very competitive market in Argentina, Canada, Chile, Denmark, France, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Portugal, North Korea, South Korea, Spain, Russia and the USA. The Carrageenan market has witnessed a CAGR of 5.2% in the last three years and is expected to grow consistently.” (Carrageenan Market-Trends and Forecasts 2018-2023) .
When we think of such a ubiquitous food product ingredient like carrageenan, I don’t know that we connect it with actual people supporting their families.
In terms of economics, carrageenan makes sense. This is a viable crop. It’s sustainable. And, in April 2018, the USDA agreed:
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture decided against the recommendation of its own National Organic Standards Board and renewed carrageenan’s status on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List), according to an April 4 posting in the Federal Register. The ruling means carrageenan, which is not certified organic, may continue to be used in organic food items.
“We commend the U.S.D.A. for taking seriously its responsibility to review the N.O.S.B. recommendation and make a decision based on the facts and science,” said Michiel van Genugten, global product line manager, Seaweed Extracts & Colors, for DuPont Nutrition & Health, Wilmington, Del. “This will allow organic food producers to continue to use a safe, versatile ingredient they rely on, and for consumers to enjoy the foods they know and love.”
Consumers Union, the Washington-based advocacy division of Consumer Reports, disagreed with the ruling.
“Today’s decision by the U.S.D.A. represents a troubling precedent that undermines the integrity of the organic label,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst with Consumers Union. “Current law requires the U.S.D.A. to base the National List of allowable ingredients for organic food on the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board, which are developed after extensive public engagement and stakeholder input. The U.S.D.A.’s decision to ignore the N.O.S.B.’s recommendation raises serious concerns about the future of the organic label.” (Food Business News)
But…is it harmful? Well, I’ve provided you with a list of studies to peruse. I’ll let you come to your own conclusions. What I can tell you from my own personal experience is this: When I eat anything with carrageenan, I experience very unpleasant GI symptoms–for hours. Like many, many people. It may be that I am susceptible to gastrointestinal upset caused by carrageenan due to a certain genetic vulnerability. The studies are there as is the trend–Europe bans it first because it’s potentially harmful. Eventually, the U.S. does, too.
- B. Yang, S. Bhattacharyya, R. Linhardt, J. Tobacman. Exposure to common food additive carrageenan leads to reduced sulfatase activity and increase in sulfated glycosaminoglycans in human epithelial cells. Biochimie 2012 94(6):1309 – 1316
- A. Borthakur, S. Bhattacharyya, P. K. Dudeja, J. K. Tobacman. Carrageenan induces interleukin-8 production through distinct Bcl10 pathway in normal human colonic epithelial cells. Am. J. Physiol. Gastrointest. Liver Physiol. 2007 292(3):G829 – G838
- H. J. Choi, J. Kim, S.-H. Park, K. H. Do, H. Yang, Y. Moon. Pro-inflammatory NF-κB and early growth response gene 1 regulate epithelial barrier disruption by food additive carrageenan in human intestinal epithelial cells. Toxicol. Lett. 2012 211(3):289 – 295
- S. Bhattacharyya, A. Borthakur, P. K. Dudeja, J. K. Tobacman. Carrageenan induces cell cycle arrest in human intestinal epithelial cells in vitro. J. Nutr. 2008 138(3):469 – 475
- P. P. Kirsch. Carrageenan: A safe additive. Environ. Health Perspect. 2002 110(6):A288
- J. K. Tobacman, S. Bhattacharyya, A. Borthakur, P. K. Dudeja. The carrageenan diet: Not recommended. Science 2008 321(5892):1040 – 1041
- P. Carthew. Safety of carrageenan in foods. Environ. Health Perspect. 2002 110(4):A176 – A177
- J. K. Tobacman. Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments. Environ Health Perspect. 2001 109(10):983-994.
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 1990. Training Manual on Gracilaria Culture and Seaweed Processing in China
- A. Trius, J. G. Sebranek. Carrageenans and their use in meat products. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 1996 36(1-2):69-85.
- World Health Organization. 2007. Evaluations of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). Carrageenan.