Carrageenan is a widely used food additive derived from red seaweed. It helps preserve food and drinks, aids in their emulsification, and acts as a thickening agent. Dairy, meat, and pastry are some of the products that contain carrageenan.
Even though carrageenan is a natural ingredient approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), controversy has followed it for the past 50 years. Because of this, everyone keeps asking the same question: “Is carrageenan safe”.
This article will provide the answer to this question and discuss different uses and possible side effects of carrageenan.
What Is Carrageenan and Where Is It Used?
Carrageenan was named after an Irish village called Carragheen because the red seaweed (known as Irish moss) from which it is extracted grows there. Despite that, most of the carrageenan used in food preparation originates from Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
A huge variety of products contain carrageenan because of its versatility. Still, it is most commonly used as a food additive. Its primary purpose is to stabilize and thicken the product.
Although it does not have any nutritional value or flavor, its structure makes it a great substitute for gelatin, which makes it suitable for vegans. It is also used for many vegan deserts because it substitutes fat in foods with low-to-zero fat content.
Which Products Contain Carrageenan?
This additive is gelatinous, thus its use is to add texture and leave a better feeling in the mouth when you taste something. Because of this feature, it is most commonly used as a stabilizer and thickener for the following foods:
- Dairy products like cream cheese, whip cream, ice cream, chocolate milk, sour cream, and cottage cheese
- Meats like prepared chicken, deli meats, and sliced turkey
- Alternatives to dairy products such as almond milk, coconut milk, soy milk, hemp milk, and deserts like soy puddings
- Prepared foods like frozen pizza, microwave dinner, and canned soups and broths
- Supplements, nutritional and diet drinks
- Canned pet foods
- Assorted products, such as baked goods, salad dressings, snack products, sauces, and cereals
Other than food products, even toothpaste and freshener gels often contain carrageenan. No matter the type of product, the FDA requires manufacturers to label products containing carrageenan.
Is Carrageenan Safe?
The controversial debate on the health effects of carrageenan has been going on for more than fifty years. People still don’t know is carrageenan safe or not.
It all started in 1961 when the FDA classified carrageenan as GRAS, an abbreviation meaning generally recognized as safe. As such, it was officially deemed safe to use in the US.
In 1997, Dr. Joanne Tobacman started publishing the results of her experimental research which allegedly showed carrageenan’s inflammatory properties. Due to these properties, Tobacman claimed at the time, carrageenan could cause various colonic and digestive health problems. However, it was later proved that she, in fact, used poligeenan and not carrageenan.
More recently, in 2001, research showed that degraded carrageenan can lead to intestinal damage in animals. There is a difference between carrageenan and poligeenan, its degraded counterpart. It is a completely different substance with different properties, which should not be used in food products.
Other studies conducted since have proved that carrageenan does no harm to intestinal walls. Some people suggested that carrageenan can be devolved into poligeenan via stomach acid during digestion, but the research refuted this as well.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) formed the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). JECFA monitored the research concerning the use of carrageen in infant formula and deemed it safe.
Possible Benefits of Carrageenan
Thanks to tests conducted on cells and lab animals, scientists have managed to identify several possible benefits of carrageenan. However, these benefits are not scientifically proven for humans, which is why they are only referred to as possible. The lab findings for carrageenan indicate the following:
- It may serve as an anticoagulant and prevent the formation of blood clots.
- It can be used as an antioxidant to protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals.
- It can positively affect the immune system.
- It may lower the levels of cholesterol in the blood.
Traditionally, seaweed extracts were used for the treatment of ulcers. They were also used to calm the digestive system and as laxatives to soften the stool.
Possible Side Effects of Carrageenan
Same as the benefits, the side effects of Carrageenan are not researched enough. Some claim that carrageenan is the same as poligeenan, which means that they have the same harmful properties. These include the following:
- Food allergies
- Glucose intolerance
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Colon cancer
Again, these studies were conducted on cells and animals. There were no human trials or any evidence that these are the actual effects of carrageenan on humans. Over the years, some people have confirmed the presence of these symptoms, but this is very subjective. Some also said that the symptoms were gone as soon as they excluded carrageenan from their diet, but this is just anecdotal evidence that doesn’t hold much scientific merit.
Since the FDA requires manufacturers to list carrageenan along with other ingredients, you can check the label and avoid products that contain it.
Carrageenan is commonly used to improve the structure of beverages. Drinks like chocolate milk and soy milk tend to separate if they don’t contain carrageenan or some other thickener. You will thus need to shake the bottle before use to get the optimal texture and consistency. Of course, this will not have an impact on the quality of the product or affect its safety.
Here are some healthy replacements for carrageenan that offer similar structure improvements:
- Gum Arabic
- Xanthan gum
- Guar gum
- Locust bean gum
The Bottom Line
With all this in mind, is carrageenan safe for human consumption or not? There is research supporting both sides, although some of it is outdated and refuted on numerous occasions.
Many people still believe carrageenan is dangerous and the risks are real, even though the World Health Organization claims otherwise. If you are still worried, you can easily exclude it from your diet and see if you notice any changes.
If you still have problems you thought were caused by carrageenan even after not consuming it for a while, it might be time to visit a doctor and discover the real cause of your ailment.