What’s So Bad About Carrageenan?

What’s So Bad About Carrageenan?

Do you sometimes get a little overwhelmed trying to weed through the piles of conflicting nutrition recommendations that seem to lose favour as quickly as they gained it? Just when you get on board with no high fructose corn syrup, the news comes down that sugar is sugar and the agave nectar you were feeling so virtuous about is like heroine coursing through your veins. You cut out red meat to save your arteries and find out there’s no better source of iron and that’s why you couldn’t drag yourself off the sofa if the house was on fire. Etc Etc. You gave up dairy to cut the fat, then you added it back in for the calcium and probiotics and now… this.

According to Wikipedia, carrageenans are “a family of linear sulphated polysaccharides that are extracted from red seaweeds. They are widely used in the food industry, for their gelling, thickening and stabilizing properties”. Well that sounds delicious, no? Basically, carrageenan is a synthetic additive derived from algae that reacts with proteins and does an excellent job of thickening and binding foods like yogurt, ice cream and processed meats. Something else it apparently does an excellent job of? Creating high amounts of inflammation in the body. Booooooo. Inflammation is of course a major buzzword in the health world these days as more and more research shows it to be the necessary precursor and possibly even cause of most major illness including the biggies: heart disease and cancer. Past studies on carrageenan differentiated “degraded” carrageenan from so-called higher quality carrageenan that is processed in a different way. But more recent studies have called that categorizing into question. Here’s what Dr. Weil had to say:

About ten years ago “a prominent researcher in the field, Joanne K. Tobacman, M.D., now associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, conducted studies linking undegraded carrageenan – the type that is widely used in foods – with malignancies and other stomach problems. Over the years Dr. Tobacman has published 18 peer-reviewed studies that address the biological effects of carrageenan and is convinced that it is harmful to human health. In April 2012, she addressed the National Organic Standards Board on this issue and urged reconsideration of the use of carrageenan in organic foods.” In fact, according to Dr. Tobacman, “in the past, drug investigators actually used carrageenan to cause inflammation in tissues in order to test the anti-inflammatory properties of new drugs.” And it doesn’t appear to take a whole lot of carrageenan to start the inflammation process. “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”. (Source)

Ok, so now that we know this, the ingredient has been quickly whisked off our shelves, right? Oh, you… so funny with the comedy. According to the Organic Consumers Organization, “At a May 2012 meeting, the National Organics Standards Board carried out their legally mandated …review of carrageenan, and, despite disturbing evidence that this synthetic ingredient causes digestive problems and cancer, decided to allow it in organics for another 5 years”. So, as always with new information, change will clearly take time and consumer demand will push that change along. In the meantime, while you’re reading those labels looking for sugar and saturated fat, consider adding carrageenan to your hit list, but be warned, the sneaky stuff is everywhere… beer, toothpaste, diet pop, veggie dogs, pet food and soy milk. Wine, is it in wine?? ‘Cause Mommy needs a beverage.

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  1. debbie
    February 07, 09:51 Reply


    Q. What is Carrageenan??

    A. Carrageenan is a naturally-occurring seaweed extract. It is widely used in foods and non-foods to improve texture and stability. Common uses include meat and poultry, dairy products, canned pet food, cosmetics and toothpaste.
    Q. Why the controversy?
    A. Self-appointed consumer watchdogs have produced numerous web pages filled with words condemning carrageenan as an unsafe food additive for human consumption. However, in 70+ years of carrageenan being used in processed foods, not a single substantiated claim of an acute or chronic disease has been reported as arising from carrageenan consumption. On a more science-based footing, food regulatory agencies in the US, the EU, and in the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) repeatedly review and continue to approve carrageenan as a safe food additive.
    Q. What has led up to this misrepresentation of the safety of an important food stabilizer, gelling agent and thickener?
    A. It clearly has to be attributed to the research of Dr. Joanne Tobacman, an Associate Prof at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She and a group of molecular biologists have accused carrageenan of being a potential inflammatory agent as a conclusion from laboratory experiments with cells of the digestive tract. It requires a lot of unproven assumptions to even suggest that consumption of carrageenan in the human diet causes inflammatory diseases of the digestive tract. The objectivity of the Chicago research is also flawed by the fact that Dr Tobacman has tried to have carrageenan declared an unsafe food additive on weak technical arguments that she broadcast widely a decade before the University of Chicago research began.

    Q. What brings poligeenan into a discussion of carrageenan?
    A. Poligeenan (“degraded carrageenan” in pre-1988 scientific and regulatory publications) is a possible carcinogen to humans; carrageenan is not. The only relationship between carrageenan and poligeenan is that the former is the starting material to make the latter. Poligeenan is not a component of carrageenan and cannot be produced in the digestive tract from carrageenan-containing foods.
    Q. What are the differences between poligeenan and carrageenan?
    A. The production process for poligeenan requires treating carrageenan with strong acid at high temp (about that of boiling water) for 6 hours or more. These severe processing conditions convert the long chains of carrageenan to much shorter ones: ten to one hundred times shorter. In scientific terms the molecular weight of poligeenan is 10,000 to 20,000; whereas that of carrageenan is 200,000 to 800,000. Concern has been raised about the amount of material in carrageenan with molecular weight less than 50,000. The actual amount (well under 1%) cannot even be detected accurately with current technology. Certainly it presents no threat to human health.
    Q. What is the importance of these molecular weight differences?
    A. Poligeenan contains a fraction of material low enough in molecular weight that it can penetrate the walls of the digestive tract and enter the blood stream. The molecular weight of carrageenan is high enough that this penetration is impossible. Animal feeding studies starting in the 1960s have demonstrated that once the low molecular weight fraction of poligeenan enters the blood stream in large enough amounts, pre-cancerous lesions begin to form. These lesions are not observed in animals fed with a food containing carrageenan.

    Q. Does carrageenan get absorbed in the digestive track?
    A. Carrageenan passes through the digestive system intact, much like food fiber. In fact, carrageenan is a combination of soluble and insoluble nutritional fiber, though its use level in foods is so low as not to be a significant source of fiber in the diet.
    Carrageenan has been proven completely safe for consumption. Poligeenan is not a component of carrageenan.
    Closing Remarks
    The consumer watchdogs with their blogs and websites would do far more service to consumers by researching their sources and present only what can be substantiated by good science. Unfortunately we are in an era of media frenzy that rewards controversy.
    Additional information available:
    On June 11th, 2008, Dr. Joanne Tobacman petitioned the FDA to revoke the current regulations permitting use of carrageenan as a food additive.
    On June 11th, 2012 the FDA denied her petition, categorically addressing and ultimately dismissing all of her claims; their rebuttal supported by the results of several in-depth, scientific studies.
    If you would like to read the full petition and FDA response, they can be accessed at http://www.regulations.gov/#!searchResults;rpp=25;po=0;s=FDA-2008-P-0347

  2. Charlotte Vallaeys
    February 08, 15:19 Reply

    Thank you for writing this post.

    The long comment titled “So much for the myths” was initially composed by Dr. Harris Bixler, a director of the international trade association for carrageenan manufacturers, which includes multibillion dollar chemical corporations like FMC Corporation and DuPont. Dr. Bixler was at the National Organic Standards Board meeting in May 2012, to lobby for the continued use of carrageenan in organic foods. He has for years attempted to discredit the work of publicly funded scientists like Dr. Tobacman. This response has been posted to nearly all blogs that address carrageenan, so I wanted you to know where this information is coming from.

    Thanks for writing about this, and helping educate others about the harmful effects of this common food additive.

    Charlotte Vallaeys
    Director, Farm and Food Policy
    The Cornucopia Institute

  3. Michael J. Riser
    May 06, 16:17 Reply

    Thanks for the information, Charlotte. Appreciate knowing where that came from. So often these kinds of rebuttals are coming from people paid to draw the “conclusions” that they do.

    Clearly most of the points in that response are entirely fallacious, and non sequiturs abound. It’s also worth noting as a general rule that anyone who ever tries to say, “But there’s never been a single substantiated case of in years,” is probably full of the proverbial excrement (since who is going to automatically assume that one single food additive in a diet filled with innumerable food additives is the culprit, and thus pursue all that would necessarily go into proving it, which most people couldn’t do anyway?), as is anyone who ever tries to claim that the FDA’s conclusion to virtually anything is on the up-and-up. The FDA is one of the most corrupt organizations that exists.

  4. […] Carageenan.  Sure, I’ve heard of sucrose, dextrose, maltodextrin, sucralose, red dye 7, xantham gum, hydrogenated oils, and all that.  But, I literally have never heard of carageenen before this. Apparently it’s in everything, and it’s not recommended by doctors to eat because it probably causes cancer.  “Carrageenan is a common food additive that is extracted from a red seaweed, Chondrus crispus, which is popularly known as Irish moss…in the past, drug inves­ti­ga­tors actu­ally used car­rageenan to cause inflam­ma­tion in tis­sues in order to test the anti-inflammatory prop­er­ties of new drugs.” And it doesn’t appear to take a whole lot of car­rageenan to start the inflam­ma­tion process. “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”. (Source) – See more at: http://www.laurak24.sg-host.com/wordpress/2013/02/whats-so-bad-about-carrageenan/#sthash.kLFzGS… […]

  5. Melissa
    March 06, 17:29 Reply

    Debbie, aka Debbie Young, works for Ingredient Solutions Inc., the world’s largest independent supplier of carrageenan. She travels the web inserting her company’s talking points FAQ into the comments section of any blog or forum that would dare call it’s company’s profit-maker into question.

    My favorite part is where she calls us all “self appointed consumer watchdogs”…I hope to GOD we are all self-appointed watchdogs of what these megacorporations are putting in our food!! Shouldn’t we all be wary of tons of added processed ingredients? Shouldn’t we all have critical thinking skills and apply those to what we are putting in our bodies???

  6. Chuckie
    November 19, 16:26 Reply

    I have ulcerated colitis. For many years I have had to take a steroid drug. Since trying to stay away from carreegam, I have not had another flare up.

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