The topic of food additives tainting our food is common in the health and wellness blogosphere. Carrageenan is currently a hot topic and one which I am pretty sure will shortly result in labels proclaiming they are “carrageenan free” whether or not the FDA weighs in and requires it.
So is carrageenan the toxic, cancer-causing additive as some have claimed? Or is it the “generally regarded as safe” additive resulting in increased consumer satisfaction as the industry claims?
As is usually my position, I would like you to know how both sides could be considered right and give you, the reader, an opportunity to decide whether or not you want to consume the products containing it.
First, let’s understand how carrageenan came to be in our food to begin with. Carrageenan is a non-nutritive, undigestible plant polymer found in seaweed. Food producers understood its ability to emulsify (keep foods from separating on the shelf), improve texture (the feel in your mouth), and add weight and volume to their product (thus increasing the profit). By using carrageenan, in combination with certain flavor enhancers, they have been able to sell products to their consumers that would otherwise be unrecognizable as food. Manufacturers were also then able to use plain water as a primary ingredient in foods, such as deli meats, and still maintain a texture and taste that is appropriate for the food products they are selling. This meant that food producers could cheaply manufacture a product that consumers found attractive.
OK, fine, but that doesn’t make it bad for you!
Well…it was known by the mid-20th century that carrageenan produces inflammation, ulcers, and tumors as well as damaging immune cells in laboratory animals(1). Medical science uses carrageenan to make animals sick so they can test cures. It seems like this alone would be enough to say it is not safe for human consumption. However, there were a few characteristics of carrageenan which led the food manufacturers to believe a specific type of carrageenan was safe.
The first was that food grade carrageenan was the non-degraded form, which was far less toxic in the laboratory studies. This was thought to be due in part to the size of the molecule. The food grade carrageenan was much larger, which means it is less likely to be absorbed. Also, by itself it was not known to cause cancer but rather only to promote the growth and spread of cancer already in the body. This larger molecule also was proposed to be larger than what was thought could be allowed across the intestinal barrier. The food additive had been Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS), which means legally that it was grandfathered into the FDA’s allowance for additives in manufactured food. Essentially, anything that had been used for a long time already was allowed in without any need to prove its safety.
There has been much contention regarding the true safety of the product even since the time it was first allowed. This led to debate as to the need for more testing in humans and the industry and academic communities argued over how to best implement a convincing study. Still, in the 1990s The FDA truly approved this food additive. They stated they were of the belief that something, though we may not know what exactly, in fact does protect the human being from the disastrous effects known to be caused by carrageen in the laboratory experiments on animals. This decision was based on the premise that no study had proven the danger to humans (even though this may have been because because no well-controlled studies had ever been performed).
Oh, so both sides are right?
Sort of. See, the carrageenan which has been undoubtedly shown to be a toxic food product is not allowed, and the carrageenan which (until recently) has been generally regarded as safe and has not been clearly shown to produce harm to humans is allowed. More recently, however, the FDA seems to not be so sure anymore and has even admitted that more investigations need to be performed(2).
So were they right or wrong? Are we protected?
Much research spearheaded by a woman named Dr. J. K. Todacman has produced concerning evidence. For one, the degraded form does end up in the food-grade product as an “accidental” byproduct of manufacturing. Also, there is the small issue that the assumption that the larger molecule size was protective turned out to be wrong. The size does not prevent it from crossing the intestinal barrier, and carrageenan does in fact get into the bloodstream(3). This is not surprising considering many other large molecules cross into the bloodstream whenever the gastrointestinal system is compromised or becomes permeable under stress. This kind of compromise happens quite often in a normal and healthy person’s daily life. Furthermore, Dr, Todacman has proposed that the degradation of carrageenan can occur through many bacterial and enzymatic processes taking place in the human digestive tract(4). It is shown in recent human studies, as well as laboratory studies involving human cells, that it is quite likely the amount of carrageenan we are exposed to in a modern diet is doing damage to the intestines, is crossing the intestinal barrier, and even harming our immune systems(5,6,7).
Bummer! How the heck did this even happen?
Perhaps they didn’t have enough info when the first decision was made. It is the case that none of the current evidence has been considered by a competent jury, and so the mistaken assumptions are still directing the laws.
Can the laws change?
Sure! However, it would require it to be analyzed by competent experts without any conflicting affiliation and the data be brought to the FDA for a ruling. This could potentially lead to labeling requirements with special warnings or even a reversal of its allowance in our food sources.
Personally, I don’t see why the burden should be on the proof of danger rather than the proof it being safe. I mean, the “harmless until proven harmful” approach seems a bit cavalier for food I give my children, but that’s not the way food regulation works.
There are many people trying to lobby for a review of carrageenan’s safety right now. This would be a big hit to the wallets of food manufacturers, so understandably they are more than inclined to oppose it from ever receiving the attention which might compromise their profits.
Hmm, now you sound like a conspiracy theorist! I don’t know about all that…
I hear ya! Trust me, I am not looking for organized exploitation of the consumers as a motive for malicious products and man-handling of the legal system. Still, I am trying to look out for my health and the health of those I hope not to see made sick by poison…and that’s pretty much everyone.
While I do not fault the food industry for wanting to take advantage of technologies which affordably produce desirable products, I cannot see a good reason why such manufacturers would fight the consumers desire to have these products be safe (or at least be informed of the potential hazards). I mean, the cigarette industry puts labels on their products warning against the potential hazards, and they’re still making money…
Wait, didn’t the tobacco industry hide the evidence of potential harm and influence legislation as long as they possibly could? Did their profit margin drop once it became general knowledge that they were causing cancer and other degenerative diseases?
Anyway, that’s beside the point.
I also do not fault the government for not being all-knowing and perfectly controlling the food industry. I would, however, still like a bit more transparency when it comes to the fact that there are many food additives that are not known to be safe but are still allowed in our food.
The responsibility for what we put inside our body falls upon the consumer. Honestly, I for one am glad for that. I want the right to choose what, how, and when I eat. If I relied solely on the guidance of established authoritative voices brought to me through industrial marketing, I don’t think I would fair as well as I do on my own. I can’t imagine being forced to comply with someone else’s ideal of a healthy diet against my own better judgement.
So where does that leave us?
From my point of view as a consumer, when reviewing all of the information available, I cannot help but to feel as though it is dangerous to consume carrageenan. I personally avoid it like I would anything which is deadly. It’s not so easy to avoid either. This additive is often found in products considered healthy and labeled organic. It will also often say carrageenan and then, in parentheses, seaweed. This is done in order to allow individuals who are interested in consuming healthy whole foods to believe that in some way this chemical structure is similar to a more familiar health food like seaweed. There are many chemicals and refined materials added to our foods which are in no way healthy. For example, MSG can be derived from the processing of brown rice, and while it also is considered safe, people are less confused as to whether or not MSG is a health food.
Carrageenan is such a widely used product that it can be hard to find a carrageenan-free food choice in some stores. These common foods include chocolate milk, ice cream, deli meats, and non-dairy milk substitutes. It will also oftentimes be found in many other processed foods.
Right now there are not only many people lobbying to have it reevaluated, but the FDA itself is vocally recognizing the importance of its reevaluation.
I recently was listening to an NPR interview in which a panel of experts from the FDA, a representative from a company which supports using GRAS additives, and some advocates for the reevaluation of food additives discussed the problems at hand(8). The representative for the FDA was being forthright in describing the inability to provide the necessary service of effectively evaluating the safety of food additives due to funding, legal domain, and the sheer amount of work in order for it to be accomplished. By contrast, the representative for GRAS was often stating that she was confident the FDA would catch anything they missed and protect the public. Sometimes this obvious shift in responsibility was voiced within the same few minutes as the FDA representative stated there was no way he could possibly do what she was implying. Whether or not you or I decide carrageenan is safe based on the information made available by me and others, it is definitely the case that we cannot rely upon the committees in charge of protecting us.
Carrageenan is a highly toxic and dangerous material which poses a potential threat when consumed by humans. The question then becomes, “Is it actually causing harm to humans as it is consumed today?” I urge everyone to make their own decision and ask the questions, “Why is this in our food? Do I want to put it in my body? What is the potential cost? What is the potential benefit? Is it worth the money I spend and the risk I take to consume this food?”
(1) Carrageenan kills immune cells
(2) The FDA’s own website is declaring a need for further experimentation and review regarding carrageenan
“Recent reports on the oral administration of un-degraded sodium and calcium carrageenan of known quality to pregnant animals reveals fetotoxic effects, with or without frank teratogenic effects, in some species at levels that do not greatly exceed the average daily human rate of intake.” “The Selct Committee has weighed the foregoing and concludes that: While no evidence in the available information on un-degraded carrageenan demonstrates a hazard to the public when it is used at levels that are now current and in the manner now practiced, uncertainties exist requiring that additional studies should be conducted.”
(3) Dr. J K Todacman, lead researcher on the dangers of food grade carrageenan
College of Medicine, University of Iowa, 200 Hawkins Drive, Iowa City, IA 52242-1081, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org
It displays evidence that the more dangerous degraded form can be produced from the “Generally Recognized As Safe” food additive form which is itself being questioned as to its safety in light of new evidence.
“Experiments demonstrate that reaction conditions similar to those of normal digestion can lead to the formation of degraded carrageenan (9–11). In addition, experimental data have revealed the contamination of food-grade carrageenan by substantial amounts of degraded carrageenan (10). Also, some bacteria are known to hydrolyze carrageenan and form low molecular weight derivatives.”
(5) Human study showing damage and death of human intestinal cells to low level exposure to carrageenan
(6) Carrageenan may damage the immune system of humans as it does in the lab animals
“It is established that carrageenan can cross the intestinal barrier of experimental animals”
(7) Human study observing mechanisms of prolonged inflammatory response to food grade Carrageenan
(8) Food additives on the Diane Rehm show, including an FDA director
Other relevant resources:
Organic foods contain carrageenan
Foods That May Contain Carrageenan : chocolate milk, ice cream , sour cream , cottage cheese , “squeezable” yogurt . soy milk, almond milk , hemp milk, coconut milk , soy desserts, soy pudding, sliced turkey, prepared chicken , nutritional drinks, canned soup, broth, microwaveable dinners, and frozen pizza
Source: Cornucopia Institute
Long, extensive report on how it came to be considered safe in light of the questionable potential for hazard
Dr. Andrew Weilon on carrageenan
“Over the years Dr. Tobacman has published 18 peer-reviewed studies that address the biological effects of carrageenan and is convinced that it is harmful to human health. In April 2012, she addressed the National Organic Standards Board on this issue and urged reconsideration of the use of carrageenan in organic foods.”