Even organic foods may harbor this ‘smooth’ but highly inflammatory ingredient

Posted by
March 26, 2013

Yoplait brand GoGurt yogurt for kids is one of the many dairy products containing carrageenan


Since Food Identity Theft presented the Top Ten Food Additives to Avoid, I’ve been receiving email from readers who think there are some very important additions that should be made to this list. I agree – and, in fact, during the next few weeks will be blogging about the “Top Ten Plus,” starting with a very commonly found ingredient that has been a suspect for over 40 years in promoting gastrointestinal disease and even colon cancer.

This additive has no taste or nutritional value and can be replaced with safer ingredients that do the same job. Although it’s well established that it causes harmful gastrointestinal  inflammation and intestinal lesions, it continues to be used by food companies in numerous items such as infant formula, yogurt, ice cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, certain meats and pet food, for the very important role it plays in giving products a nice texture, fatty “mouth feel” and a good appearance.

The Top Ten Plus Food Additives to Avoid:
Number 11 –  Carrageenan

Concern over carrageenan goes way back to the 1960s, when researchers linked the carrageenan used in food to gastrointestinal disease and colon cancer in laboratory animals. And the bad news about this ingredient has been piling up ever since.

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.

In 2008, 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), filed a citizen petition asking the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of carrageenan in food, which was turned down by the agency just last year.

Supporting Dr. Tobacman, The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit farm policy research group based in Wisconsin, sent a letter to the FDA this March asking the agency to reconsider Tobacman’s petition, which 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 group added that every claim that supports the safety of carrageenan in foods and beverages “can be refuted, based on strong scientific evidence.”

The Cornucopia Institute has also just released a report titled “Carrageenan, How a ‘natural’ food additive is making us sick,” which details the scientific studies and other evidence against this additive and urges consumers to avoid foods containing it. The report notes 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 points out that there are over 100 human diseases, including cancer, associated with such constant inflammation.

This high-priced premium dog food from Blue Buffalo contains carrageenan despite the company claim of being the "next generation of healthy pet food"

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

Last year 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.

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 this month 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.”

In the meantime, we can do them one better – by eliminating foods containing this highly risky “smooth operator” from our personal shopping lists.