Carrageenan is literally everywhere. It is virtually impossible to find a grocery store that doesn’t sell products that include it as an additive. Even the natural food stores are full of it. You can find it in organic yogurt, tofu, coconut milk, baby formula and even in your nitrite-free turkey cold cuts. It has a long and controversial reputation as an emulsifier that damages the digestive system.
Luckily, though, the National Organics Standards Board voted in November 2016 to remove carrageenan from the list of substances allowed in organic food. However, the United States Department of Agriculture has the final say and is scheduled to publish its final rule on this in November 2018, according to Food Safety News.
At first glance, it may seem like carrageenan is safe. It’s derived from red seaweed and found in many “health” foods. The bottom line is this: carrageenan is no health food by any stretch of the imagination, and it has been shown to cause side effects.
What is Carrageenan?
Derived from red algae or seaweeds since the 1930s, carrageenan is processed through an alkaline procedure to produce what many consider to be a “natural” food ingredient. Interestingly, if you prepare the same seaweed in an acidic solution, you get what is referred to as “degraded carrageenan” or poligeenan.
Widely know for its inflammatory properties, degraded carrageenan is commonly used in drug trials to literally induce inflammation and other diseases in lab animals. This has raised some serious eyebrows because the difference between a disease-producing carrageenan and its “natural” food counterpart is literally just a few pH points.
What is Carrageenan Used For?
When answering the “what is carrageenan” question, it’s important to realize that it is widely used for two main purposes.
- Conventional medicine: carrageenan is an active ingredient in solutions used to treat everything from coughs to intestinal problems. Known to decrease pain and swelling, it has even been reported that the acidic form is commonly used as a bulk laxative and to treat peptic ulcers.
- Food Additive: although carrageenan adds no nutritional value or flavor, its unique chemical structure makes it exceptionally useful as a binder, thickening agent and stabilizer in a wide variety of foods and healthcare products like toothpaste. (1)
Carrageenan History & Controversy
The use of carrageenan as a laxative is particularly interesting because it has been linked to various gastrointestinal (GI) conditions since the late 1960s. (2) The FDA even considered restricting dietary carrageenan in 1972, but that didn’t prevail. (3)
In fact, carrageenan’s entire history is quite fascinating because of shifting priorities in public health circles, which has placed its regulatory status in a constant state of flux for decades. Even today, health authorities are uncertain how to handle the situation.
Potential Carrageenan Dangers & Side Effects
Researchers and health advocates who insist that carrageenan is dangerous usually quote one of the many studies that supposed link the seaweed food additive to:
- Large bowel ulceration (4, 5)
- Ulcerative colitis (6)
- Fetal toxicity & birth defects (7)
- Colorectal cancer (8, 9, 10)
- Glucose intolerance and insulin resistance (11)
- Inflammation (12)
- Liver cancer (13)
- Immune suppression (14)
- Promoting the growth of abnormal colon glands, which are precursors to polyps (15)
Independent carrageenan experts like Joanne Tobacman, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at theUniversity of Illinois at Chicago, insists 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. (16)
Various sources claim that many individuals experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms (ranging from mild bloating to irritable bowel syndrome to severe inflammatory bowel disease) have noticed that eliminating carrageenan from the diet leads to profound improvements in their gastrointestinal health.(17)
According to The Cornucopia Institute, “Animal studies have repeatedly shown that food-grade carrageenan causes gastrointestinal inflammation and higher rates of intestinal lesions, ulcerations, and even malignant tumors.” (18)
Still, there are conflicting studies. According to a 2014 article published in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology: (19)
- Due to its molecular weight, carrageenan is not significantly absorbed or metabolized by our bodies, which basically means that it flows through your GI tract like most other fibers and is excreted in your feces.
- Carrageenan does not significantly affect nutrient absorption.
- At doses up to 5 percent in the diet, carrageenan has no toxic effects.
- The only side effects related to carrageenan consumption of up to 5 percent in the diet include soft stool and possibly diarrhea, which is common for non-digestible fibers.
- At doses up to 5 percent in the diet, food grade carrageenan does not cause intestinal ulceration.
- Carrageenan can cause immune dysfunction when administered intravenously, not when consumed as a food additive.
- Dietary carrageenan has not been linked to cancer, tumors, gene toxicity, developmental or reproductive defects.
- Carrageenan in infant formula has also been shown to be safe in baboon and human studies.
Carrageenan-Free Shopping List
I suggest playing it safe and avoiding carrageenan whenever possible. If the USDA does indeed finalize the vote to prohibit carrageenan in its products, that will make things a lot easier. However, until at least late 2018, it still is allowed in organic products.
The Cornucopia Institute created an extensive shopping guide to help you avoid organic foods with carrageenan. Also, be careful of “hidden” sources. The nonprofit watchdog organization has this warning to give to consumers:
Always check ingredient lists carefully, and note that ingredients are not required by law 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. (20)
Final Thoughts on Carrageenan
Bottom Line: As I have been recommending for years, you are always better off eating real food and not isolated compounds from food. It’s probably best to avoid products that contain it.