Is Carrageenan Safe to Eat?

Carrageenan is an ingredient that helps emulsify, stabilize and thicken packaged foods. It also is used in some medications and toothpaste. Refined from red seaweed, carrageenan is found in a wide array of foods, including dairy (chocolate milk, ice cream, sour cream), plant-based milk-alternatives (soy, almond, hemp, coconut “milks”), and frozen pizzas. It also may be found in products made with a carrageenan-containing ingredient and not listed directly in the Ingredients statement, such as pies with condensed milk as an ingredient. Carrageenan is found in both non-organic and organic foods in the U.S., since the National Organic Program (NOP) deemed the food additive “critical to organic production and handling operations.”  Over the years the safety of carrageenan has been called into question, with some studies linking the additive to intestinal inflammation.home_header_001
However, new research findings published in the journal Food and Toxicology and funded by the industry-backed International Food Additives Council (IFAC) indicate that carrageenan does not cross the intestinal epithelium (a barrier that keeps out bad stuff and lets in good stuff) and does not cause intestinal inflammation. I know what many of you are thinking – of course a study funded by the food industry is reporting favorable findings about the ingredient in question. However, funding alone should not indicate that these data are compromised in some way, as the food industry has a vested interest in only using ingredients that are safe for their consumers. Further, if the food industry doesn’t fund these studies, who will? The government certainly doesn’t have the money, and based on my time at CDC I can tell you it takes much longer for anything to get done in the government compared to elsewhere.
To date, carrageenan remains an approved food additive by the FDA, and consumers can consider it as safe as any other approved food additive in our food supply. Typically, when carrageenan is used it is toward the end of the ingredient list, meaning it is used in much smaller amounts than the ingredients listed toward the beginning. Many consumers can take this knowledge and feel ok continuing to buy carrageenan-containing products. However, shoppers who still want to avoid carrageenan do have some options. Buying fewer packaged foods should help as well as checking Ingredients statements on products to see if the additive is included in the list. If you don’t want to cut back on the amount and types of packaged foods you buy, just eating less food overall can help too.
While many companies are choosing to remove carrageenan from their products, the decision to take it out is not based on safety concerns, but a consumer demand for “clean label” products. I think an important consideration here is that companies are choosing to remove an ingredient that science and the FDA say is safe just because their consumers want them to. My concern with this, as a lover of chocolate milk and sour cream (not together), is with what ingredient are these companies going to replace carrageenan, something that’s been in use for decades? For many foods where carrageenan is used to prevent separation, a simple “shake well before using” statement on the label might suffice. However, others will likely need a substitute ingredient. As we’re seeing with the plastic and metal liner BPA, the replacement is also linked to adverse health outcomes. When consumers arbitrarily demand an ingredient be removed from a product what they’re also demanding many times is that said ingredient be replaced with something less researched, that lacks a comprehensive understanding about the safety and use levels that we know about ingredients that’ve been in use for years.
Seeking out additive-free packaged foods and demanding clean labels doesn’t really mesh with the purpose of packaged foods in the first place. We did have “clean” foods before the advent of packaged foods, when women were chained to the field, cutting board, and stove all day. However, packaged foods need food additives like carrageenan in order to actually be packaged and have an acceptable quality and shelf life. This is the main reason the NOP deemed carrageenan a necessary ingredient in production and handling. Instead of lambasting ingredients that have already been proven to be safe and approved for use by the FDA, we should be focusing our efforts on helping consumers eat healthful, balanced diets and increase their levels of physical activity. After all, as any dietitian will tell you, it’s not one thing in isolation that increases or decreases the healthfulness of a diet but your lifestyle overall.