The Truth about Carrageenan
Learn the facts before you ban this common food additive from your diet
If you’re a label reader, you may have seen carrageenan listed among the ingredients in your soy milk or yogurt. And if you’re a Web surfer, you may have read scary things about this common food additive.
Used to improve the texture of low-fat dairy products and other foods, carrageenan started making headlines several years ago when some consumer watchdog groups and bloggers called for its removal from our food supply.
They based their claims on research that seemed to link carrageenan to health problems including chronic inflammation, insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes) and gastrointestinal problems such as inflammatory bowel disease and ulcerative colitis.
The campaign against carrageenan is gaining traction. In 2013, Stonyfield Organic vowed to phase out its use. In the summer of 2014, WhiteWave Foods announced it would eliminate the additive from Horizon Milk and Silk nondairy drinks. The reason? Consumer demand, according to WhiteWave's announcement. "Even though it is safe, our consumers have told us they want products without it."
Should you be worried about the carrageenan lurking in the foods in your fridge? Probably not.
An ancient folk remedy
This food additive is nothing new. Extracted from red seaweed, carrageenan (also known as Irish moss) has been used around the world for centuries as a gelatin and a home remedy.
"When you really look at the history, carrageenan was mostly used to cure coughs, colds and tummy upsets," says says Kantha Shelke, PhD, CFS, a principal with the food science research firm Corvus Blue LLC and a spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists. "That's one of the reasons why it's an ingredient in infant formula."
Food manufacturers use it as a stabilizer, thickener and emulsifier. It mimics the texture of fat in low-fat and fat-free diary products and helps prevent nondairy milk alternatives, such as soy and almond milks, from separating. You'll also find it in some packaged foods, lunch meats, nutritional supplements and medications.
Much of the research on carrageenan has been done in human cells or animals — not in human beings. And while some of these studies suggest an association with human health problems, they don't demonstrate that it causes problems.
"There is absolutely no epidemiological evidence for carrageenan and tumor-promoting or inflammatory effects in humans," says Shelke.
The other issue is that not all carrageenan is the same. "The word 'carrageenan' is a catch-all term for a number of different molecules, and they all have different properties," says Shelke. Some studies have used poligeenan, a form of degraded carrageenan, molecularly speaking, that is not the same as the food-grade additive.
The bottom line
"Carrageenan is used as a stabilizer or a thickener, so it's used in very, very small amounts, and your exposure to it is very, very small," says Shelke. "And most of all, it has been used for millennia now and has not had a problem."
Food-grade carrageenan is considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration, The European Food Safety Authority and the World Health Organization.
Of course, if you prefer to avoid carrageenan, just check food labels. Manufacturers are required to list it.