Even ‘healthy’ food can harbor this gut-wrenching additive that ‘came from beneath the sea’

Posted by
March 31, 2015


In revising our list of the top ten food additives to be avoided as we approach the third annual Read Your Labels Day on April 11, we’ve now assigned the Number 3 spot to one that wasn’t included originally – carrageenan. Used in a wide variety of products – including, unfortunately, some organic ones — to give them a nice texture, fatty “mouth feel” and a good appearance, this tasteless, non-nutritive seaweed derivative has long been known to cause harmful gastrointestinal  inflammation and intestinal lesions. It can also be replaced with safer ingredients that do the same job. Yet carrageenan continues to be used by many food companies, even some that claim to have only “healthy” ingredients in their products.

Number 3:  Carrageenan

Concern about carrageenan dates back to the 1960s, when researchers linked its use in food to gastrointestinal disease and colon cancer in laboratory animals.

Two years ago, The Cornucopia Institute released a report titled “Carrageenan, How a ‘natural’ food additive is making us sick,” which detailed the scientific studies and other evidence against this additive and urges consumers to avoid foods containing it. The report noted that “(f)or individuals who consume carrageenan on a regular or daily basis, the inflammation will be prolonged and constant, which is a serious health concern since prolonged inflammation is a precursor to more serious disease,” and pointed out that there are over 100 human diseases, including cancer, associated with such constant inflammation.

The Institute, a non-profit farm policy research group based in Wisconsin, also sent a letter to the FDA asking the agency to reconsider  a citizen petition filed in 2008 asking the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of carrageenan in food, which was turned down by the agency in 2012. The petition was submitted by Dr. Joanne Tobacman, a “physician-scientist” at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has been studying the effects of this additive for almost 20 years, publishing 18 peer-reviewed papers on the subject.

Tobacman stated, “When a body of publicly funded scientific literature points to harm from consuming a common, widely used yet unnecessary food ingredient, the FDA should act in the interest of public health,” the Institute’s letter said,  adding that every claim that supports the safety of carrageenan in foods and beverages “can be refuted, based on strong scientific evidence.”

Carrageenan comes from red seaweed and can be processed into either what’s called “food grade” or “degraded.”  Degraded carrageenan, recognized as a “possible human carcinogen” and not permitted in food, is extremely inflammatory — so much so that it is used extensively in scientific studies to induce inflammation in laboratory animals on which to test anti-inflammatory drugs. While “food grade” sounds a lot nicer, numerous studies have shown even small levels of this version commonly used in food products are enough to cause inflammation in the human colon, and  what’s even more disturbing, it appears that “food grade” can turn into the potent inflammatory and carcinogenic “degraded” version in the human GI tract.

A stain on the organic industry’s reputation

If all this sounds bad, perhaps even worse is the permitted use of carrageenan in organic foods.

Back in 2012, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a group that determines what non-organic ingredients can be used in organic foods, approved, by a one-vote margin, the continued use of carrageenan in the certified organic food supply.

According to the Cornucopia Institute, the carrageenan lobby group “convinced enough corporate-friendly NOSB members…to ignore the disturbing findings of dozens of independently funded and peer-reviewed studies…” including those that found high rates of colon cancer in laboratory animals fed the “food grade” carrageenan. As the Institute observed “Organic foods should be a safe haven from harmful ingredients. In fact, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the law governing organic foods, requires that non-agricultural ingredients must be determined safe to human health and not deleterious to the environment before they can be added to organic foods. After all, if organic food isn’t safer than conventional food, what’s the point, right?”

Avoiding carrageenan in your diet (and your pet’s diet as well) is yet another reason to read the ingredient label, even on organic foods.

Although industry predictably is trying to convince consumers with assurances that carrageenan is perfectly safe, as the Cornucopia Institute said in its letter to the FDA:  “…there are no benefits to society or public health from adding carrageenan to foods or beverages. It is added solely to change the texture of food. Already, some food manufacturers are replacing carrageenan with other thickeners and stabilizers, or eliminating thickeners altogether and asking their customers to shake the product before consumption. If carrageenan is prohibited, the food industry will quickly adapt.”

And in some cases, it already is in the process of doing so, if only in response to consumer pressure.  As we reported last year, after “Food Babe” Vani Hari alerted her followers to the dangers of carrageenan,” WhiteWave Foods, the company that makes Horizon and Silk brands, announced it would be removing carrageenan from those products.  While still maintaining carrageenan was safe, the company said consumer “feedback” had indicated “it was time to make a change.”

Apparently, then, such “feedback” is what’s really required to get this inflammatory additive and other pernicious ingredients out of our food.  That begins with reading the ingredients label on products (even organic ones, where carrageenan is concerned), avoiding those with harmful additives, and letting the manufacturers of those foods know the reason why.