Carrageenan. It’s everywhere these days. Is it a case of “carrageenan is the new HFCS?” I’m not sure, really, but it could be. Carrageenan is an ingredient derived from various species of seaweed. It has been used for hundreds of years as a thickener and emulsifying agent. GAH! “Emulsifying agent” sounds all chemical-ish and therefore it must be bad! Wait just a sec. They aren’t necessarily a ‘bad thing.’ Emulsifiers “prevent separation of ingredients and extend storage life.” (source) Yes, yes, they can be found not only in foods but in cosmetics, lotions, and medicines. You know what else can be found in most of those, too? Water. So chill a bit before you get all uppity. There will be plenty of time for that later.
I recently had a conversation on the Facebook about carregeenan appearing in a product that I use and endorse that prompted me to investigate a bit into this ubiquitous ingredient. Naturally I was able to find just as many articles saying that it was safe as I was articles condemning it and calling for government intervention to remove it from our food supply. Let’s take a look at a few of them, and then you can decide for yourself if carrageenan is right for you.
First up is an article from Followyourheart.com. According to the site, “Follow Your Heart is committed to the quality and safety of our ingredients.” They go on to state that some of their products contain carrageenan and that they want to give us information about why they use it. Right away you can tell that they will be giving us reasons why it should be considered safe. I mean, if it is in their products, why would they state otherwise? Off the bat they answer the question of “Is Carregeenan Safe?” with the bold, simple statement of “Yes, our extensive research has led us to conclude that food-grade carrageenan is safe to eat.” Of course it has.
They explain that there are 2 forms of carrageenan; food grade and degraded. The degraded kind was “found to be harmful, but it is not used in foods, as it does not provide any thickening properties.” (this leaves me wondering what degraded carrageenan IS used in…) The folks at FYH want us to know that “the harmful effects of carrageenan in its degraded form have been mistakenly associated with food-grade carrageenan.” I can understand that. I mean, look at the whole debacle with yoga mat ingredients being found in a certain fast-food chain’s bread. (link to NPR story) They go on to let us know “How do we know that carrageenan is a safe food additive” by telling us that it has been evaluated by an international joint committee. Their article gives sources for their research, much like a paper report, but there are no hyperlinks to any of them. You can read the article from Follow Your Heart here.
Prevetion magazine was the next place I looked, since many consider them to be a credible source of information for the…umm…seasoned population. Seems to me, though, that if they are focusing on ‘prevention’ they should be targeting a much younger audience…but i digress.
Their article leaves NO question about their stance on carrageenan: “The Natural Ingredient You Should Ban From Your Diet” sends a strong message. Do we even need to read the story? The subtitle leaves room for curiosity, though. “An unnecessary ingredient could be irritating your gut.” A bit wishy-washy, eh? The author jumps right in, though, demonizing carrageenan. Sorry, that wasn’t very neutral of me. The author jumps right in, sharing their opinion, “Sometimes eating something natural isn’t good for you.”
The Prevention article makes claims that carrageenan is completely unnecessary as an ingredient and wants the FDA to ban the ingredient from the food supply. “Its use in beverage products could be completely eliminated iff companies printed “Shake Well” on their packages, since carrageenan essentially makes sure liquids remain mixed.”
This source also tries to make a direct connection between the consumption of carrageenan and increased incidences of cancer. We’ll talk about that in the next section. Prevention’s article ends by giving their readers a way to cut carrageenan from their diet and tips on how to go about removing it from everyone’s diet as well. (source link)
The Prevention article said of one of their sources, “Her previous work showed a concerning connection between carrageenan and gastrointestinal cancer in lab animals.” I found some research, not hers, that does make a connection. It doesn’t, however, state that carrageenan is the CAUSE of the cancer. But first, a warning.
VIVISECTIONIST (def) ALERT!!!!! From here on, I reference a study that was conducted on several different types of animals. If this is not your thing, please skip this section. I don’t wish to get into a debate on the morals of using animals as test subjects for humans, etc. etc. etc.
In a study by the World Health Organization entitled “Safety Evaluation of Certain Food Additives and Contaminants, Carrageenan and Processed Eucheuma Seaweed,” researchers conducted studies using rats, hamsters, and rhesus monkeys to try to determine 1) the “effects on gastrointestinal tract in short-term and long-term studies” and 2) “Studies o tumour promotion in rat colon.”
The full study and results can be read here, but the basic conclusion was “that the dietary concentrations of carrageenan used in the two studies that showed that carrageenan enhanced colon carcinogenesis in rats were higher and that carrageenan was administered before, during, and after the carcinogens. Enhanced carcinogenicity under these circumstances may result from promotion but may also result from altered toxicokinetics or biotransformation of the carcinogen. Therefore, the mechanism of the enhancement of colon carcinogenesis in these studies remained unresolved.”
So it seems that yes, carrageenan is involved with cancer, but seemingly only when a known carcinogen is present.
Dr. Joanne Tobacman’s study mentioned in the Prevention article, states the following in their conclusion: 1) Degraded carrageenan is a known carcinogen in animal models. 2) Ungraded carrageenan is a known co-carcinogen in animal models of carcinogenisis 3) In animal models, both degraded and ungraded carrageenan have been associated with development of intestinal ulcerations that resemble ulcerative colitis.
Her full study can be found here.
You can come back now!
Is carageenan safe? I can’t say for sure. My hope is that you are now armed with some more information that can help you decide for yourself what is right for you and your family.
Would love to see some discussion in the comments!