Is Carrageenan safe? I’m thinking I won’t drink your milkshake after all.

Oh there’s been so much news this summer.

I was preparing my class, and wanted to begin with a commercial that relies on the ignorance of the viewing public for its stance that milk is an all natural product, whereas soy, rice, and almond “milks” are imitations with all kinds of odd ingredients that must be inherently dangerous:

Let me run this down for you quickly.  Riboflavin is a B vitamin, Vitamin A palmitate is added to all cow’s milk and all of its analogs — like soy, almond, etc. Zinc gluconate is zinc, which occurs naturally in animal products and would be added to the analogs (helps with immunity and growth).  Calcium carbonate is calcium in the same form as Tums (cow’s milk is mostly calcium phosphate).  All that stuff just proves that most of America doesn’t know good from bad about what they’re eating.  And now you do.

But what about carrageenan?  Carrageenan is derived from red seaweed and is used as an emulsifier — that is, it brings fat and water together so things like ICE CREAM (made with…ahem, MILK), salad dressing, chocolate milk…and a thickener in stuff like dieting foods and shakes.  That I knew.  I looked it up to see what else might contain the stuff and its safety and was completely surprised by what I found.

Though carrageenan is on the GRAS list, and it’s against the Delaney Clause to knowingly add any substance into food that might cause cancer, carrageenan might not be all that safe (click that link — teratogenic means “cancer causing” and you’ll see that bit at the end about more necessary research).  It puts a lot more General in the Regarded As Safe category.  How did I not know this?

The Cornucopia Institute (again with them!) did a little peeking around and essentially felt the same:

May 2012: The National Organic Standards Board again reviews carrageenan during the Sunset process and will decide whether to continue allowing carrageenan in certified organic foods.

Yeah.  Carrageenan, we didn’t date in high school, but I’m pretty much through with you.  Which means I need to find a new soy milk, (I’m talking to you, Trader Joe’s).  Damn.  A little list to help with the avoidance right here.  It’s not that if it sneaks into the occasional something I feel I might die, but why expose myself to something daily that might not be a good thing?

Hey, Dairy  Council, for the first time EVER, I’m going to say: Thanks!  I’m still not drinking your milk, or your milkshake, though.  It’s a wonder you didn’t bring up the sugar in Imitation Milks (except the unsweetened ones, which taste like Kaopectate), but that would expose the fact that most grown up folks of all nationalities but Northern European have trouble digesting lactose, the sugar in milk.  Too complicated, right?  I hear that.


5 responses to “Is Carrageenan safe? I’m thinking I won’t drink your milkshake after all.

  1. Well, there goes my Trader’s Joe’s soy creamer. And that is something I do everyday. Makes you wonder. Thanks! Jocelyn


    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

    • Debbie: Though your points are rather rudely stated, I appreciate any updates I may have missed. The text in the above reply is not cited, and appears to be copied from one of many sources (digestive TRACK? It’s tract, for those of you playing along at home). In any case, I have looked for updates from the FDA and have only found one, which is a revision with regard to the specific use of food additives, including carrageenan. The GRAS list has not changed and the cautions remain intact, but it appears that the site has not been revised in quite some time, so Debbie’s claims may indeed have merit.

      The link to the CFR Title 21 listing revised in 2012:

      Additionally, Joanne Tobacman studies the link between inflammation and cancer, and a few of her studies involve Carrageenan, but I see no evidence that she is biased against the substance — she is merely investigating it, and sometimes investigations lead nowhere. However, her information may have informed the new Title, or perhaps not — I don’t know.

      Use your own judgement, and remember to use reliable sources when you are looking for information. I wouldn’t worry too much if you are the sort of person who consumes very little of the substance. If you are eating a balanced, plant-based diet, you’re probably okay. And if you aren’t, carrageenan consumption (and an abundance of processed foods) is/are something to consider.

  3. Debbie aka Debbie young works for Ingredient Solutions Inc., the world’s largest independent supplier of carrageenan. Her comments were pasted from her company’s FAQ page. She does this on any site that questions this ingredient. My favorite part is where she calls us all “self appointed consumer watchdogs”…I hope to GOD we are all self-appointed watchdogs of what these megacorporations are putting in our food!! Shouldn’t we all be wary of tons of added processed ingredients? Shouldn’t we all have critical thinking skills and apply those to what we are putting in our bodies???

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