The Carrageenan Controversy

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.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
3-minute read
Episode #276


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?

Is Carrageenan Safe?

Based on the fairly extensive evidence that's been put forward, I don't think that carrageenan is toxic or carcinogenic or even particularly inflammatory for the vast majority of people. That said, it also appears that the substance may cause problems in some susceptible individuals. 

I have a close friend whose baby daughter spent several harrowing weeks in the hospital suffering from severe ulcerative colitis. The doctors were actually starting to talk about a colostomy for this toddler! Fortunately, she recovered--due in no small part to her parents' determination to find non-surgical solutions. Among other things, they eventually identified carrageenan as a trigger and eliminated it from her diet. I'm happy to say that she is now a healthy and thriving 8-year-old (with an intact and functioning colon!).

If you have unresolved digestive issues, you might want to eliminate carrageenan for several weeks to see if it makes a difference.

Based on this and other reports, I think anyone with unresolved digestive issues might at least want to experiment with eliminating carrageenan for several weeks to see if it makes a difference. If it does, what more evidence do you need? Eliminating carrageenan is not difficult, although it can be a bit of a hassle.  

Here's a guide that can help

However, it would appear that, for the vast majority of individuals, carrageenan is well-tolerated and not a cause for concern. 

What Do You Think?

Do you think carrageenan should be banned? Or is it over-reacting to ban an ingredient because a small percentage of the population might be sensitive to it? Feel free to post your comments or questions below or on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page

Carrageenan image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.