Carrageenan has been used in traditional food preparation for hundreds of years and is an ingredient in many organic and vegan foods. But now critics are calling for a ban. Is carrageenan safe? Nutrition Diva sorts through the evidence.
Carrageenan has been the subject of a lot of controversy and several of you have asked me to comment. For those who may not be up to speed on the topic, let me start with a quick overview..
What Is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is an extract from a red seaweed commonly known as Irish Moss. This edible seaweed is native to the British Isles, where it's been used in traditional cooking for hundreds of years. It's also widely used in the food industry, mostly as a thickener and gelling agent. You'll find it in ice cream, cottage cheese, non-dairy milks, jelly, pudding, and infant formula. Unlike gelatin, which is made from animal products, carageenan is appropriate for vegans.
Who would have thought that this ancient, natural, plant-based ingredient would become center of a swirling controversy? But it certainly has. Some scientists have presented evidence that carrageenan is highly inflammatory and toxic to the digestive tract, and claim that it may be reponsible for colitis, IBS, rheumatoid arthritis, and even colon cancer. Equally respected scientists have detailed the reasons that this evidence is flawed and misleading, concluding that there is no valid reason to ban its use.
Are the Charges Against Carrageenan True?
For example, the anti-carrageenan folks point out that carrageenan is routinely used to induce inflammation in animals as a way of testing various anti-inflammatory drugs. While this is true, the protocol calls for injecting carrageenan into the animals, not feeding it to them. There are many substances which are harmless when eaten but would be irritating or dangerous if injected.
It's also claimed that feeding carrageenan to lab animals induces severe intestinal inflammation and ulcers. However, an independent review of these studies found that the substance used was not food-grade carageenan but a degraded form that is known to be toxic.
For every seemingly irrefutable point, there seems to be an equally valid counterpoint.
Yes, say the proponents of a ban, but food-grade carrageenan is degraded into this more harmful form in the human digestive tract! However, studies have failed to confirm this effect. The charges go on (and you can click on the links if you want to read more), but it seems that for every seemingly irrefutable point, there is an equally irrefutable counterpoint.
The whole controversy eventually led to a petition to the FDA to remove carrageenan from the list of ingredients that are "generally recognized as safe." After reviewing the evidence, the FDA opted not to change carrageenan's designation.
But all that happened over 10 years ago, so why are we still talking about it? Because the controversy has not gone away. Individuals continue to report dramatic improvement of long-standing digestive issues when they eliminate carageenan from their diets. Activists continue to call for a ban. The food industry continues to defend its use, citing the conclusions of scientists and government agencies. What's a consumer to do?