Carrageenan is literally everywhere. It is virtually impossible to find a grocery store that doesn’t sell products that include it as an additive.
Even the natural food stores are full of it. You can find it in organic yogurt, tofu, coconut milk, baby formula — even in your nitrite-free turkey old cuts.
Although it’s so common in packaged foods and you are probably consuming it, in one form or another, throughout the week, carrageenan has a long and controversial reputation as an emulsifier that damages the digestive system.
The National Organics Standards Board voted in November 2016 to remove it from the list of substances allowed in USDA organic food. However, the FDA still approves this ingredient as a food additive.
At first glance, it may seem like carrageenan is safe. It’s derived from red seaweed and found in many “health” foods.
But here’s the bottom line — it may cause inflammation and digestive problems, and even though more human studies are needed to completely understand its potential dangers, for now it should be avoided.
What Is Carrageenan?
Derived from red algae or seaweeds since the 1930s, carrageenan is processed through an alkaline procedure to produce what many consider to be a “natural” food ingredient. Interestingly, if you prepare the same seaweed in an acidic solution, you get what is referred to as “degraded carrageenan” or poligeenan.
Widely know for its inflammatory properties, poligeenan is commonly used in drug trials to literally induce inflammation and other diseases in lab animals. This has raised some serious eyebrows because the difference between a disease-producing carrageenan and its “natural” food counterpart is literally just a few pH points.
What Is Carrageenan Used For?
When answering the “what is carrageenan” question, it’s important to realize that it’s widely used for two main purposes:
- Food additive: Although it adds no nutritional value or flavor, its unique chemical structure makes it exceptionally useful as a binder, thickening agent and stabilizer in a wide variety of foods and health care products, like carrageenan in toothpaste.
- Conventional medicine: Carrageenan is an active ingredient in solutions used to treat everything from coughs to intestinal problems. Known to decrease pain and swelling, it has even been reported that the acidic form is commonly used as a bulk laxative and to treat peptic ulcers.
History and Controversy
Carrageenan’s entire history is quite fascinating because of shifting priorities in public health circles, which has placed its regulatory status in a constant state of flux for decades. Even today, health authorities are uncertain how to handle the situation, with calls from some researchers and health advocates to ban the additive from foods and other products.
The use of carrageenan as a laxative is particularly interesting because it has been linked to various gastrointestinal (GI) conditions since the late 1960s. The FDA even considered restricting dietary carrageenan in 1972, but that didn’t prevail.
In 1982, the International Agency for Research on Cancer identified sufficient evidence for the carcinogenic properties of poligeenan in animals, but this doesn’t necessarily translate to the use of undegraded carrageenan that’s used in foods.
That being said, it has been stated by one researcher in particular that the cancer-promoting effects of undegraded carrageenan in experimental models has been proven and should be considered by the FDA as a reason to restrict dietary carrageenan.
The controversy lies in the fact that there are no human studies proving that undegraded carrageenan dangers are a serious threat. Until we know for sure, do we continue to consume foods containing the seaweed additive, or do we opt for carrageenan-free foods and beverages instead?
Is It Bad for Health? (Dangers and Side Effects)
Researchers and health advocates who insist that carrageenan is dangerous usually quote one of the many studies that claim to link the seaweed food additive to health issues like:
- Large bowel ulceration and ulcerative colitis: Animal studies suggest that both undegraded and degraded carrageenan produces ulceration in the large intestine. This has been studied on guinea pigs and rabbits.
- Fetal toxicity and birth defects: Research from the 1980s suggests that the food additive may have potential hazards.
- Colorectal and liver cancer: An animal study published in 1981 suggests that degradation during passage through the GI tract may increase the risk of food-grade carrageenan cancer.
- Glucose intolerance and insulin resistance: Studies on mice and human cells suggest that the food additive impairs glucose tolerance, increases insulin resistance and inhibits insulin signaling.
- Inflammation: Studies on mice and cells show that the red algae additive causes the activation of inflammatory pathways.
- Immune suppression: Studies on rats show that the antibody response was temporarily suppressed after consumption of the food-grade additive.
- Promoting the growth of abnormal colon glands: A 1997 study suggests that carrageenan give as a jelly promotes the growth of abnormal colon glands, which are precursors to polyps.
Independent experts like Joanne Tobacman, M.D., associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, insist that carrageenan exposure clearly causes inflammation.
In her 2013 research indicating that carrageenan is a “natural” food additive that is making Americans sick, Tobacman suggests that the amount of carrageenan in food products is sufficient to cause inflammation and that poligeenan and food-grade carrageenan are both harmful.
Various sources claim that many individuals experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms (ranging from mild bloating to irritable bowel syndrome to severe inflammatory bowel disease) have noticed that eliminating carrageenan from the diet leads to profound improvements in their gastrointestinal health.
According to research published by The Cornucopia Institute, “Animal studies have repeatedly shown that food-grade carrageenan causes gastrointestinal inflammation and higher rates of intestinal lesions, ulcerations, and even malignant tumors.”
Still, there are conflicting studies. According to a 2014 article published in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology:
- Due to its molecular weight, carrageenan is not significantly absorbed or metabolized by our bodies, which basically means that it flows through your GI tract like most other fibers and is excreted in your feces.
- It does not significantly affect nutrient absorption.
- At doses up to 5 percent in the diet, carrageenan has no toxic effects.
- The only side effects related to carrageenan consumption of up to 5 percent in the diet include soft stool and possibly diarrhea, which is common for non-digestible fibers.
- At doses up to 5 percent in the diet, food-grade carrageenan does not cause intestinal ulceration.
- It can cause immune dysfunction when administered intravenously, not when consumed as a food additive.
- Dietary carrageenan has not been linked to cancer, tumors, gene toxicity, developmental or reproductive defects.
- Carrageenan in infant formula has also been shown to be safe in baboon and human studies.
What does this mean about carrageenan safety and side effects? Well, we aren’t quite sure yet.
There are certainly conflicting ideas about whether or not food-grade carrageenan (not degraded or poligeenan) causes inflammation, cancer and other major health issues.
Foods and Sources (Plus Is It Safe to Consume?)
Because carrageenan is found in red algae or seaweeds, it’s often used as a food additive in vegan diet and vegetarian products. You’ll often find it in vegan desserts and dairy-free foods as a thickener.
It works similarly to gelatin, which is derived from collagen in animal parts, acting as a sticky, gel-like substance in foods and beauty/health products. However, while gelatin has an impressive amino acid composition, carrageenan has no nutritional value.
Some of the most common carrageenan foods and sources include:
- almond milk
- coconut milk
- hemp milk
- rice milk
- soy milk
- chocolate milk
- cottage cheese
- ice cream
- sour cream
- deli meats
- canned soups and broths
- frozen pizzas
- microwavable dinners
- infant formula
- nutritional drinks
The Cornucopia Institute created an extensive shopping guide to help you avoid organic foods with carrageenan.
Also, be careful of “hidden” sources. Not all foods with carrageenan will have the additive listed on the ingredient label because it’s being used as a “processing aid.”
There are other places where it is used but often not listed, including in beers (as a clarifying agent), pet foods and even conventional nutritional supplements. When it comes to avoiding carrageenan in dog food and cat food, be sure to read the ingredient list carefully and research the manufacturer.
Is carrageenan safe? Although more human studies are needed to fully understand if it is bad for health, avoiding food and health products containing carrageenan is recommended.
Choosing certified organic products and reading the ingredient label for carrageenan will ensure that the additive isn’t present in your foods.
There are other food additives that are used as food thickeners and stabilizers and don’t come with a potential threat of adverse effects. These effects can be replicated by the following food additives:
- Agar agar: Agar agar is a vegan gelatin and plant-based food thickener that’s also derived from red algae. It may promote digestive health, support satiety and help to regulate blood sugar.
- Guar gum: Guar gum is a powdered products that’s used as a stabilizer, emulsified and thickener. You’ll find it in almond milk, yogurts, soups and fiber supplements. It can also be used to help form gluten-free baked goods.
- Gum arabic: Gum arabic is made from natural hardened sap. It’s often used in a wide variety of desserts, daily products and ice creams. There are some benefits to gum arabic, including its ability to treat IBS and constipation, fight insulin resistance and regulate cholesterol. But it may also lead to gassiness, bloating and indigestion, in some cases.
- Gelatin: Gelatin is a protein that’s derived from partial hydrolysis of collagen. It may improve your gut health and digestion, improve your skin health and support the health of your joints.
- Pectin: Pectin is a carbohydrate that’s found in citrus fruits and used to form a gel-like substance. It’s packed with fiber and may help to lower your cholesterol.
There are also carrageenan-free almond milks and daily-free beverages, ice cream without carrageenan and organic foods that are made without the additive. You may find that carrageenan-free beverages tend to separate, but you can simply shake them up before drinking.
- Studies have shown that degraded carrageen (also called poligeenan) has dangerous, inflammatory effects. However, the evidence on undegraded carrageen side effects is limited to animal and cell studies.
- Is carrageenan really bad for your health? Researchers don’t agree on the risk of carrageenan inflammation, but there are anecdotal reports that avoiding foods with this additive helps relieve stomach discomfort and digestive problems.
- If you are concerned about the risks of this additive, it’s best to avoid it in food and even skin care products until more studies prove that it’s completely safe. There’s also the possibility of a carrageenan allergy, so if you have adverse reactions to foods containing the algae, avoid eating it right away.