by Elizabeth May, RDN, LDN
Carrageenan has been in our food supply for decades now and is one of the most hotly debated food additives, but why?
What is it?
Carrageenan is derived from red seaweed, mostly imported from Indonesia. The red seaweed is dried and processed into a fine powder where either an acid (“degraded” carrageenan, not used for food) or an alkaline substance (“food grade” carrageenan).
What does it do?
Carrageenan acts as a thickener, emulsifier, and preservative. When carrageenan is removed from a product, manufacturers normally replace it with a mixture of gums such as guar gum and xanthan gum.
Where can I find it? According to the Cornucopia Institute, carrageenan is found in:
What’s all the hype surrounding carrageenan?
Carrageenan is considering safe by the FDA , WHO, and European Commission. However, many organizations and individuals including Food Babe, Cornucopia Institute, National Organic Standard Board (appeals to USDA), and many other professionals, point to studies that have linked this food additive to inflammation, digestive disease risk, and cancer. In 1970, 5,000 tons of red seaweed were harvested for carrageenan production. Today, more than 200,000 tons are harvested for the global use of carrageenan. Some blame this increase in carrageenan use to the subsequent rise of digestive issues and IBD in children.
What does the research say?
Research regarding carrageenan is mixed.
According to Jessica Levings, MA, RDN, writing for the Food and Nutrition Magazine, “Recent research findings published in the journal Food and Toxicology and funded by the industry-backed International Food Additives Council indicate that carrageenan does not cross the intestinal epithelium — a barrier that keeps out the bad stuff and lets in good stuff — and does not cause intestinal inflammation. The findings may seem biased to some, since the study was funded by the food industry — this alone, however shouldn’t indicate bias. The food industry has a vested interest in only using ingredients that are safe for its consumers”.
However, just this year, a review from the Frontiers in Pediatrics, concludes that “animal studies consistently report that carrageenan and carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) induce histopathological features that are typical of IBD while altering the microbiome, disrupting the intestinal epithelial barrier, inhibiting proteins that provide protection against microorganisms, and stimulating the elaboration of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Similar trials directly assessing the influence of carrageenan and CMC in humans are of course unethical to conduct, but recent studies of human epithelial cells and the human microbiome support the findings from animal studies. ” The review did state that carrageenan and CMC are unlikely to be the only environmental trigger to IBD.
There is no known safety level of carrageenan so it is best to consume in moderation, if at all. More research is needed. We recommend to read ingredient lists and buy whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and fish, as much as possible.
What are your thoughts on carrageenan? Do you think it should continue to be a GRAS food additive?