What is carrageenan? Carrageenan is an additive that is commonly found in the foods we eat every day. Natural food stores sell products such as organic yogurt, tofu, coconut milk, baby formula, and nitrite-free deli meat with carrageenan.
When you see this chemical in your health food products, you will most likely assume that it is not harmful. However, it is not as clear as you may think. There are some safe food additives; however, carrageenan is not particularly good.
Ultimately, carrageenan side effects may not be as dangerous as people make it out to be.
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So, What is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan comes from red algae or seaweed. It was first processed in the 1930s by an alkaline method. Surprisingly, if you make this seaweed in an acidic solution, you will get “degraded Carrageenan” which can actually cause inflammation. Poligeenan, or degraded carrageenan, is used for drug trials with lab animals. Many are surprised that the disease-creating carrageenan is a few PH points away from its “natural” food ingredient.
History & Uses for Carrageenan
Carrageenan is used for two specific purposes:
Carrageenan does not have nutrition or flavor, but it works as a binder and thickening agent in a variety of foods, such as toothpaste. (1)
Carrageenan is an active ingredient in medicines to treat coughs and stomach issues. It works by decreasing pain and swelling. Acidic carrageenan is used as a laxative and to treat peptic ulcers.
It’s basically impossible to avoid carrageenan if you live in the United States.
It’s interesting that carrageenan is used as a laxative because it is connected to many gut health, or gastrointestinal (GI), conditions since the 1960s. (2) The FDA considered limiting dietary carrageenan in 1972, but it did not succeed. (3) Carrageenan’s history is fascinating because it changes priorities in health circles over the past few decades. Today, health experts are not sure how to address the situation. The Nineteenth International Seaweed Symposium in 2009 showed four major public controversies over the safety of carrageenan makes this fact:
“It is concluded that current assessments of risk associated with carrageenan have, in some contexts, failed to take into account the full spectrum of safety assessments that have been carried out and the maturing of food additive regulations thereby allowing a myth to continue.” (4)
Why is there a myth? Because many claim that carrageenan is not safe for human consumption.
Possible Dangers of Carrageenan
Researchers quote one of these many studies to link the seaweed food additive to:
- Suppressing the immune system (5)
- Promoting the growth of abnormal colon glands, which can lead to polyps (6)
- Liver cancer (7)
- Inflammation (8)
- Glucose intolerance and insulin resistance (9)
- Colorectal cancer (10, 11, 12, 13)
- Birth Defects
- Fetal Toxicity
- Ulcerative colitis (14)
- Large bowel ulcerations (15, 16)
Before we agree with all of the research that brushing our teeth with carrageenan is going to cause all of these diseases, we must ask the following:
Was degraded or undegraded carrageenan used?
Some of these studies do not indicate which type of carrageenan was used. In 1992, rats were fed carrageenan and poligeenan fibers for 91 days. They had a temporary increase in cancer The poligeenan rats did not recover and their cancer grew 2 to 11 times the amount of the carrageenan rats. The carrageenan rats went back to normal after the study.
What was the dosage?
These studies gave large amounts of carrageenan to lab rats. In 1998, the FDA did a study where male rats were fed fiber free or fiber supplemented diet with 10 percent wheat, 5 percent guar gum, or 5 percent carrageenan for four weeks. The researchers proved that carrageenan increased the rats risk of developing cancer four times more than other diets. This was based on the measurement of thymidine kinase enzyme specific activity, which is a marker for colon cancer. It seems frightening, but consuming 5 percent of carrageenan each day is a lot more than the average person takes in.
Also, these studies use intravenous injections to deliver the carrageenan into the lab animals. Although they have a big impact on the immune system, they are not orally administered. (17)
The Critical Reviews in Toxicology support the theory that eating small amounts of carrageenan may not be harmful.
“Based on the many animal subchronic and chronic toxicity studies, [carrageenan] has been found to affect the immune system, as judged by lack of effects on organ histopathology, clinical chemistry, hematology, normal health, and the lack of target organ toxicities. In these studies, animals consumed [carrageenan] at orders of magnitude above levels of CGN in the human diet: ≥ 1000 mg/kg/d in animals compared to 18-40mg/kg/d in the human diet” (18)
Joanne Tobacman, MD is an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois of Chicago, and she states that “carrageenan exposure clearly causes inflammation; the amount of carrageenan in food products is sufficient to cause inflammation; and degraded carrageenan and food-grade carrageenan are both harmful.” (19)
What the Studies Show
What do we believe? Is this additive bad for us? Ultimately, the jury is still out.
Many sources show that eliminating carrageenan from diets can help individuals with gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, IBS, and inflammatory bowel disease. The Cornucopia Institute says that “animal studies have repeatedly shown that food-grade carrageenan causes gastrointestinal inflammation and higher rates of intestinal lesions, ulcerations, and even malignant tumors.”
However, not all of the experts agree with the 1991 study.
“Food grade carrageenan is a safe natural product prepared from seaweed. Its addition to food imparts many desirable characteristics which allow it to be used continuously for centuries. The long safe history of this natural food additive is confirmed by negative results in subchronic and chronic feeding studies in many animal species, mutagenicity studies and reproductive toxicity studies.” (20)
The Critical Reviews in Toxicology supported this view in 2014 with the following facts:
- Carrageenan in infant formula has been safe in baboon and human studies
- Dietary carrageenan is not linked to cancer, tumors, gene toxicity, developmental or reproductive effects
- Carrageenan can cause immune dysfunction when given intravenously and not consumed orally
- Up to 5 percent in the human diet, carrageenan does not cause intestinal ulceration
- Soft stools and diarrhea are carrageenan side effects, which are normal for non-digestible fibers
- Carrageenan does not impact nutrient absorption
- Carrageenan is not absorbed or metabolized by our bodies, which means it flows through the GI tract like other fibers and leave through feces
Additionally, some studies infer that carrageenan encourages health benefits. The National Cancer institute says it blocks the human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.
“Carrageenan is in widespread commercial use as a thickener in a variety of cosmetic and food products ranging from sexual lubricants to infant feeding formulas. Some of these products block HPV infectivity in vitro, even when diluted a million-fold.”
The Cornucopia Institute made a list of organic foods with carrageenan. Watch out for hidden sources. This non-profit gives the warning to consumers-
“Always check ingredient lists carefully, and note that ingredients are not required to be listed on alcoholic beverages, which may contain carrageenan. In fact, carrageenan is commonly used to clarify beer but is not listed on the label.”
You are always better off eating real food and not isolated compounds from food. A small amount of carrageenan is most likely not going to harm you. It’s best to take precaution and avoid products with carrageenan to be safe.