The food fear-mongers are at it again, and carrageenan is the latest ingredient in their sights. Despite their lack of any scientific degrees or credentials, some bloggers have managed to mobilize an entire “army” of readers to help eliminate another ingredient from the food supply. This time it’s carrageenan. Dramatic claims have been made about the “dangers” of this naturally occurring food additive, but is the war on carrageenan justified by the body of scientific evidence? Let’s see how the claims stack up.
What’s All the Fuss About Carrageenan?
Despite its proven track record for providing desired qualities in foods and its natural sourcing, some activist groups and outspoken individuals and bloggers have made it their mission to eradicate carrageenan from food products. Many of those who campaign against carrageenan completely ignore its value.
Carrageenan is a naturally occurring ingredient that is extracted from red seaweed and used to improve the texture and palatability of many foods and beverages. Many commonly consumed foods and beverages contain carrageenan, such as chocolate milk, ice cream and other dairy products, salad dressings, soy and almond milk, infant formula, and some meat products.
Carrageenan is very useful in food production, as it helps to form gels, thicken liquids, and to stabilize foods. Adding carrageenan to foods can improve their texture and palatability. For example, without carrageenan, your ice cream would likely be a lot less creamy and delicious. That’s a deal-breaker—I’ll stick with the carrageenan!
Claims of Link Between Carrageenan and Adverse Health Effects Scientifically Unfounded
Several human and animal studies have contradicted claims that carrageenan is carcinogenic and demonstrated its safety. These studies found no link between carrageenan consumption and various health conditions, including cancer and digestive and reproductive disorders.
As an approved food additive, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has thoroughly evaluated the research on carrageenan and concluded that it is safe for use in foods and beverages. The Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization (FAO)/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and other credible authorities, such as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), have also confirmed carrageenan’s safety and that it is not cancer-causing.
In addition, claims of a link between carrageenan and inflammation of the digestive tract are based on a handful of flawed animal studies, and are therefore not relevant for evaluating the safety of carrageenan as it is currently used. Why aren’t they relevant? 1) The studies used excessively high doses of carrageenan that are not comparable to what someone would consume in a real-world scenario, and 2) they were conducted using forms of carrageenan that are not used in foods or beverages.
Basing exaggerated claims on studies that are not relevant and/or contain flaws or other serious limitations in their methodology leads to an unnecessarily alarmed, misinformed public. Information about food ingredients and additives must be based on the body of research.
(See UPDATE below)
Leave the Junk Science, Take the Ice Cream
It’s easy to alarm consumers about food ingredients like carrageenan when providing them only with scare tactics and none of the science-based facts. The bloggers who foster these food fears are wasting the energy of their “army” of followers, leading them into a battle without science on their side.
Correct the misinformation spreading about carrageenan’s safety and ditch the junk science by providing science-based information on carrageenan, such as this Q&A from the IFIC Foundation: Questions and Answers about Carrageenan in Food.
Liz Sanders, MPH, RD, LDN, is a former intern at the International Food Information Council and Foundation
A 2016 study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology assessed the effects of three common forms of carrageenan in human intestinal cell lines. While this study utilized cell lines as their model, animal and cell culture models are the foundation for the overwhelming majority of carrageenan research.
You may have heard or read about a study linking carrageenan to intestinal inflammation. The research on carrageenan is expansive; however, there are some large limitations to some of this research, such as the use of extremely high doses and lack of characterizing the quality and purity of carrageenan. Unfortunately, these limitations have led to the publication of studies that may be unreliable and/or misinterpreted, and even more troubling, inaccurate conclusions on safety of carrageenan.
The findings from McKim Jr., et al, used carrageenan that was tested in advance for purity and found that carrageenan does not cross intestinal epithelial cell and does not exert toxicity. Additionally, these researchers found that carrageenan does not induce oxidative stress or induce inflammation.