While you may think that you don’t normally eat seaweed, you probably do. Probably often. And in a surprising variety of foods. Carrageenan is a fiber extracted from red seaweed. Like cellulose (which also appears in processed food), it’s indigestible to humans, but it works wonders when used as a thickening or gelling agent or as an emulsifier to keep ingredients in food from separating.
Start reading those labels and you’ll notice that Carrageenan shows up everywhere. It’s injected into raw chicken and other meats to help them retain water. It’s used to keep cocoa from separating from milk in chocolate milk. It appears in ice creams, jellies, cottage cheese, toothpaste, fruit gushers, infant formulas and much, much more. Pretty useful stuff, I’d say. And the fact that Carrageenan is also used to de-ice frozen airplanes makes it even more impressive.
Carrageenan was placed on the FDA list as a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) additive in the 1950s and grandfathered into the system with the 1958 Food Additives amendment as a prior sanctioned substance. Since carrageenan, like wood pulp, cannot be absorbed by the human stomach, there’s a temptation to wonder how it even qualifies as “food,” but leaving that aside, the additive’s widespread use in our industrialized food supply is calling that dusty old safety status into question. Some folks get tummy aches after consuming the additive and the science seems to be confirming that it has harmful effects on human intestinal cells. The consumption of carrageenan may have a role in intestinal inflammation and possibly in inflammatory bowel disease. In laboratory animals it’s been shown to cause cancer and ulcerative colitis.
Defenders of the additive say that only “degraded” or non-food grade Carrageenan causes these effects and that the small amounts in food aren’t harmful. Dr. Joanne Tobacman, physician-scientist at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, disagrees.
Tobacman has been studying this controversial additive for over twenty years. In an address to a meeting of the National Organic Standards board earlier this year, Tobacman testified that both undegraded and degraded carrageenan cause inflammation and that the amounts consumed in the human diets are sufficient to cause it. You can download her full testimony here.
The Cornucopia Institute urges anyone suffering from gastrointestinal symptoms (irritable bowel syndrome/IBS, spastic colon, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic diarrhea, etc.) to completely eliminate carrageenan from the diet for two weeks. They offer a shopping guide for those who want to avoid carrageen in their diets. The jury may still be out on this versatile additive, but one thing is almost certain. Increased scrutiny and tightening regulations on carrageenan has driven up prices in the food additive market, leading manufacturers to look for less expensive solutions. We’ll probably be getting less seaweed in our ice cream now. And more wood pulp.