The use of carrageenan in processed food has been a controversial issue since the 1960s. At surface level, it appears to be safe. It has been in use for decades and it is a “natural” product derived from seaweed. However, despite seeming harmless, past and current research shows evidence of potentially harmful effects. As a result, some consumers and organic advocates want it banned from the food system. On the contrary, major food producers see it as a useful emulsifier that is hard to replace. Though still in use today, carrageenan is gradually being replaced as more people want to avoid the additive.
Issues with Carrageenan
One of the main points against the use of carrageenan in processed food is that it may lead to inflammation and gastrointestinal discomfort. According to the Cornucopia Institute, “The unique chemical structure of carrageenan triggers an innate immune response in the body, recognizing it as a dangerous invader. This immune response leads to inflammation.” In addition, carrageenan may also have carcinogenic characteristics.
There are two forms of carrageenan: degraded and undegraded. Undegraded is considered food-grade, while degraded is thought to be carcinogenic to humans. The Cornucopia Institute stated that, “When the carrageenan manufacturers’ trade group tested 12 samples of food-grade carrageenan, it found every sample was considered contaminated with degraded carrageenan (classified as a “possible human carcinogen”) by at least one of the testing laboratories.” The trace amounts of degraded carrageenan in food products is not likely to be harmful and there is not conclusive evidence that it causes cancer. However, it still poses a risk that concerns consumers.
The carrageenan controversy has been going on for years. On one hand, “Organic purists such as the Cornucopia Institute campaigned to ban it from organic food… [while] established organic food companies, on the other hand, fought to continue using it” (Charles 2018). Finally, in 2016, the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) voted to prohibit using carrageenan in foods with the organic label. However, the NOSB’s vote was “was technically a recommendation — and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the National Organic Program, has now decided to disregard it” (Charles 2018). The USDA’s decision to overlook the NOSB’s vote, led to more controversy and disagreement on an already contentious topic.
Current Use in the Food Industry
Carrageenan is still common in many foods today, although some manufacturers are working to reformulate products to not contain the additive anymore. The International Food Information Council Foundation stated that “some food products that contain carrageenan are chocolate milk… ice cream and other dairy products … salad dressings…soy milk …and some meat products.” It is a desirable ingredient to producers because it can help with binding, texture, thickening, and preventing separation.
Because of these benefits, carrageenan is still “acceptable” in organic products, though not without much debate. One article stated that, “given consumer demand for organic foods without potentially harmful ingredients, many companies have responded by eliminating carrageenan from their organic product formulations, demonstrating that alternatives exist and carrageenan is not essential” (McCauley 2018). Organic companies are the first to move away from using carrageenan, but it is still in a variety of foods both conventional and organic.
Where do I stand?
I do not think carrageenan should still be in food products. Even if it is in the “food-grade” form, there are still trace amounts of the potentially carcinogenic form. Though it only poses a slight risk, it is easy enough to avoid by simply replacing carrageenan. Furthermore, numerous studies have found that the additive leads to inflammation which plays a big role in many chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
From a public health standpoint, it would be best to reduce the number of inflammatory foods in the system. An increasing number of companies are removing carrageenan and finding alternatives, proving that it can be done. Nonetheless, carrageenan is a useful additive in many foods, and if its use continues, it should only be in conventional products. This would make it easier for consumers to know if a product is carrageenan-free, in case they need to avoid it due to the gastrointestinal side effects.
Overall, the use of carrageenan in processed food products is a highly controversial issue. Though it has been in use since the mid-1900s, researchers continue to find evidence that it could lead to a plethora of health complications, namely gastrointestinal issues. The debate is even stronger between the organic sector and conventional producers. Carrageenan is still allowed in foods, even those labeled organic, but some producers are opting to voluntarily find alternatives in response to consumer demand.
Charles, D. (2018, April 4). USDA Defies Advisers, Allows Carrageenan To Keep Organic Label. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/04/04/599550018/usda-sides-with-big-organic-to-allow-emulsifier-to-keep-organic-label/
Matthews, J. (2014, February 25). Questions and Answers about Carrageenan in Food. International Food Information Council Foundation. Retrieved from https://foodinsight.org/questions-and-answers-about-carrageenan-in-food/
McCauley, M. (2018, April 4). USDA decides to allow carrageenan in organic food despite health concerns and vote by the National Organic Standards Board. Consumer Reports. Retrieved from https://advocacy.consumerreports.org/press_release/usda-decides-to-allow-carrageenan-in-organic-food-despite-health-concerns-and-vote-by-the-national-organic-standards-board/
The Cornucopia Institute. (2016, April). Carrageenan. Retrieved fromhttps://www.cornucopia.org/research/carrageenan-how-a-natural-food-additive-is-making-us-sick/