What comes to mind when you think of food additives? If you’re anything like many consumers, it’s nothing positive. In fact, according to the GTN group, 62% of customers avoid artificial additives when making food purchases. According to the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), a food additive is:
“Any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result (directly or indirectly) in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food.”
Carrageenan is an often discussed negatively in the organics community, however, new science seems to give a more positive outlook on the additive than those in the past.
What Is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is seaweed (red seaweed known as Irish moss) that has been boiled, chopped up, dried, and milled into a powder. Carrageenan is nutritionally neutral, meaning that it provides none of the calories, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, fats, or any other usable nutrients generally present in food. It’s fiber; your body passes it through your system without using it. It is also used by some to help with bronchitis, coughs, and tuberculosis. In food, carrageenan increases food viscosity, resulting in thicker, more creamy soups, desserts, and dairy products. Carrageenan is used in weight loss products and is considered to be kosher and vegan.
The plant is also an economical and environmentally-friendly alternative for developing coastal nations that have traditionally relied on fishing to generate income. With many fish populations currently in decline due to overfishing, a shift towards seaweed farming may give these populations a chance to reestablish themselves.
Other studies suggest carrageenan has additional health benefits. Studies have shown that carrageenan may be able to improve gut health, protect intestinal lining, treat cardiovascular disease, combat free radicals, and — when included as an ingredient in over-the-counter nasal sprays and throat lozenges — even help fight the common cold.
In 1997, a scientist named Joanne Tobacman published a paper that suggested a link between carrageenan and various medical issues, mostly related to inflammation. She went on to continue researching more supposed dangers of carrageenan, building her career on these studies. However, there were some issues with her research. Tobacman focused on animals with gastrointestinal systems completely different from those found in humans. She misattributed results from poligeenan tests to carrageenan (two completely different substances). Some of her research even relied on information gathered from injecting carrageenan into rat footpads, even though carrageenan is usually ingested rather than injected, and almost any foreign substance will cause inflammation when introduced subdermally.
Despite these problems, Tobacman eventually found an ally in the Cornucopia Institute. Cornucopia is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization for organic farmers— direct competitors to the seaweed farmers who produce carrageenan. Due to her research, the scientific community became split over the safety of carrageenan, despite issues being raised about the research.
Food scientists and international food safety regulatory groups have been unmoved. The FDA, along with the EC, JECFA, and the Japan Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare have all determined through repeated testing that carrageenan is a safe food additive, in contrast to those who rely on prior studies. These groups point to recent studies to explain their support for carrageenan.
Where Tobacman’s research used animals with non-humanlike digestive systems, new tests use pigs (which are much more similar to humans, digestively speaking). Tobacman’s research did not specify which materials were used in her testing, other tests focus exclusively on food-grade carrageenan and correctly identify that poligeenan is not permissible as a food additive. Where Tobacman’s research relied partially on injections of carrageenan, new tests focus exclusively on digestive applications, showing that ingested carrageenan does not result in inflammation. These tests have been reviewed and replicated by experts across numerous fields.
There has yet to be conclusive and reproducible tests that have shown carrageenan to be harmful. Without scientific consensus, the FDA is unlikely to eliminate the additive from food products, especially without identifying a safe alternative. It’s ultimately a personal choice whether or not to avoid carrageenan. However, current data suggests that the plant has little side effects and may be a boon for health. Despite some controversy, studies have consistently shown carrageen is safe for human consumption.