Red Seaweed - Carrageenan Source

Carrageenan – Seaweed Derivative In Dairy

Red Seaweed - Carrageenan Source
Photo Courtesy Derek Keats via Flickr
In recent years, I’ve noticed the addition of something called carrageenan in many dairy products: ice cream, cottage cheese, buttermilk, yogurt, etc.

What is Carrageenan?

Carrageenan is a mixture of polysaccharides derived from red and purple seaweed using strong chemical alkalis such as sodium hydroxide. It is used in food products as a thickening or emulsifying agent.

Why is Carrageenan a problem?

I was quite disturbed when I started seeing carrageenan in my food. I used to work in medical research. One group I worked with was studying tumors. They would inject animals with a known carcinogen. But the concoction they used also contained carrageenan. Why carrageenan? Because it acted as a tumor promoter. It didn’t really cause the tumor, but it helped with its development. Quite disturbing to think that now it is in my food.

According to The Cornucopia Institute, carrageenan is also implicated in many cases of gastrointestinal symptoms. They suggest some food alternatives that do not contain carrageenan. They also have a report for download titled Food-­Grade Carrageenan:
Reviewing Potential Harmful Effects on Human Health

Carrageenan is implicated in chronic inflammation; and is also a known migraine trigger in many people.

Why is Seaweed safe and Carrageenan NOT safe?

That was actually one of my first questions when I learned the source of carrageenan. Just because it came from a natural source does not make an additive safe or natural. The biggest problem with carrageenan is something called “degraded carrageenan.” This degraded carrageenan, a by-product of the extraction process, has been classified as “possible human carcinogen” by the WHO. It was first thought that there was no degraded carrageenan in food-grade carrageenan. But recent studies have found degraded carrageenan in food-grade carrageenan. It has also been found that stomach acids can break down carrageenan to the degraded form.

Bottom Line

Carrageenan has no nutritional value. It is used in products like ice cream to improve its texture. BUT, I remember making ice cream as a child. We never added carrageenan. I have begun to suspect that it is an additive used by lazy manufacturers. Another use is in soy milk and almond milk, presumably to give them a texture similar to cow’s milk. But there are alternatives that do not contain carrageenan.

I have always avoided carrageenan; first because I knew it from my work in research and second because it is a known migraine trigger. You may want to consider avoiding it too.

Update – 06.20.2014
The comments below were held in moderation until this week as I pondered whether to even publish them. I finally decided I would publish them but I wrote another blog post addressing their comments.
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3 thoughts on “Carrageenan – Seaweed Derivative In Dairy”


    Q. What is Carrageenan??

    A. Carrageenan is a naturally-occurring seaweed extract. It is widely used in foods and non-foods to improve texture and stability. Common uses include meat and poultry, dairy products, canned pet food, cosmetics and toothpaste.
    Q. Why the controversy?
    A. Self-appointed consumer watchdogs have produced numerous web pages filled with words condemning carrageenan as an unsafe food additive for human consumption. However, in 70+ years of carrageenan being used in processed foods, not a single substantiated claim of an acute or chronic disease has been reported as arising from carrageenan consumption. On a more science-based footing, food regulatory agencies in the US, the EU, and in the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) repeatedly review and continue to approve carrageenan as a safe food additive.
    Q. What has led up to this misrepresentation of the safety of an important food stabilizer, gelling agent and thickener?
    A. It clearly has to be attributed to the research of Dr. Joanne Tobacman, an Associate Prof at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She and a group of molecular biologists have accused carrageenan of being a potential inflammatory agent as a conclusion from laboratory experiments with cells of the digestive tract. It requires a lot of unproven assumptions to even suggest that consumption of carrageenan in the human diet causes inflammatory diseases of the digestive tract. The objectivity of the Chicago research is also flawed by the fact that Dr Tobacman has tried to have carrageenan declared an unsafe food additive on weak technical arguments that she broadcast widely a decade before the University of Chicago research began.

    Q. What brings poligeenan into a discussion of carrageenan?
    A. Poligeenan (“degraded carrageenan” in pre-1988 scientific and regulatory publications) is a possible carcinogen to humans; carrageenan is not. The only relationship between carrageenan and poligeenan is that the former is the starting material to make the latter. Poligeenan is not a component of carrageenan and cannot be produced in the digestive tract from carrageenan-containing foods.
    Q. What are the differences between poligeenan and carrageenan?
    A. The production process for poligeenan requires treating carrageenan with strong acid at high temp (about that of boiling water) for 6 hours or more. These severe processing conditions convert the long chains of carrageenan to much shorter ones: ten to one hundred times shorter. In scientific terms the molecular weight of poligeenan is 10,000 to 20,000; whereas that of carrageenan is 200,000 to 800,000. Concern has been raised about the amount of material in carrageenan with molecular weight less than 50,000. The actual amount (well under 1%) cannot even be detected accurately with current technology. Certainly it presents no threat to human health.
    Q. What is the importance of these molecular weight differences?
    A. Poligeenan contains a fraction of material low enough in molecular weight that it can penetrate the walls of the digestive tract and enter the blood stream. The molecular weight of carrageenan is high enough that this penetration is impossible. Animal feeding studies starting in the 1960s have demonstrated that once the low molecular weight fraction of poligeenan enters the blood stream in large enough amounts, pre-cancerous lesions begin to form. These lesions are not observed in animals fed with a food containing carrageenan.

    Q. Does carrageenan get absorbed in the digestive track?
    A. Carrageenan passes through the digestive system intact, much like food fiber. In fact, carrageenan is a combination of soluble and insoluble nutritional fiber, though its use level in foods is so low as not to be a significant source of fiber in the diet.
    Carrageenan has been proven completely safe for consumption. Poligeenan is not a component of carrageenan.
    Closing Remarks
    The consumer watchdogs with their blogs and websites would do far more service to consumers by researching their sources and present only what can be substantiated by good science. Unfortunately we are in an era of media frenzy that rewards controversy.
    Additional information available:
    On June 11th, 2008, Dr. Joanne Tobacman petitioned the FDA to revoke the current regulations permitting use of carrageenan as a food additive.
    On June 11th, 2012 the FDA denied her petition, categorically addressing and ultimately dismissing all of her claims; their rebuttal supported by the results of several in-depth, scientific studies.
    If you would like to read the full petition and FDA response, they can be accessed at!searchResults;rpp=25;po=0;s=FDA-2008-P-0347

  2. Regarding the safety of carrageenan, there has been an amazing amount of misinformation being blogged about carrageenan being unsafe as a food ingredient. In spite of this misinformation, carrageenan continues as the safe food ingredient it has always been. If it were not, the principal regulatory agencies of the world (US FDA, FAO/WHO JECFA, EU EFSA, and Japan Ministry of Health) would not approve its use, and all of them give the necessary approvals. The only application restricted as a precautionary measure is stabilizing liquid infant formula and a definitive toxicology is about to be published that is expected to remove this restriction.
    Why all the concern about the safety of using carrageenan in foods? Starting in the 1960s there have been research studies showing that if excessive doses of carrageenan are consumed in animal trials inflammation can be induced in the small intestine. Likewise, inappropriate methods of introducing the carrageenan into the animals, i.e. in the animals’ only source of drinking water, have induced an inflammatory response in the small intestine. However, there has never been a validated inflammatory response in humans over the seventy plus years carrageenan has been used in foods. The anecdotal “upset tummies” reported in blogs as coming from consuming a food containing carrageenan are hardly
    reliable sources of information on the safety of carrageenan.
    Inflammatory responses in animals only occur when carrageenan can cross the blood membrane barrier of the small intestine. This only occurs when the extreme feeding conditions mentioned above are employed. Normal feeding regimes induce no such response.
    Over the last decade a group of molecular biologists at the University of Illinois at Chicago lead by Dr Joanne Tobacman have been exploring the in vitro interaction of carrageenan with various genes and conclude that carrageenan can cause inflammation in the gut via a binding mechanism involving TLR-4 receptors. This group also concluded that carrageenan degrades in the gut and the degraded carrageenan can permeate the membrane barrier. Recent studies refute both of these claims, and furthermore this recent research questions the validity using in vitro studies to mimic the in vivo events in the GI tract when a human consumes a food containing carrageenan.
    The bottom line on the safety issue is that in spite of all the efforts to downgrade or question the safety of carrageenan, particularly by bloggers, carrageenan is a safe food ingredient in all of the major regulatory jurisdictions of the world.

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