Carrageenan: a natural ingredient but is it harmful? (October 2015)
Over the last several months I have had clients ask me about carrageenan. They want to know what it is and what the possible risks of consuming it are. When I was a student, my nutrition professors frequently said, “If you can’t pronounce it, it’s probably not a wise idea to eat it.” Since carrageenan is not the easiest ingredient to pronounce, perhaps it is something to avoid; therefore, my article this month provides a brief overview of this frequently used food ingredient along with mention of a few problems associated with it.
We see carrageenan in quite a variety of foods: soy milk, processed cheeses, coconut milk, soups, frozen entrees, deli meats, and ice cream. It is often found in low fat dairy products, to which it is added so we can get the feeling of fullness and the desirable mouth feel which the fat would normally provide.
Carrageenan is extracted from red seaweed that is found in the Atlantic Ocean. As a gum, it thickens foods, including liquids. It can serve as a plant-based substitute for gelatin which, when added to a product, decreases the likelihood that the product’s ingredients will separate while increasing the product’s shelf-stability, i.e., the length of time the product can remain on the shelf while maintaining its original quality. We often see carrageenan in products labeled “organic” or “natural”, terms which lead people to assume that it must be good for us. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the food products that we see in the natural food stores contain carrageenan.
Although some researchers claim that carrageenan may cause gastrointestinal distress, inflammatory problems or even Diabetes Mellitus, animal studies have produced mixed results. Nevertheless, in 2008, a researcher petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reexamine its position that carrageenan is an additive that is safe for human consumption. Many people who had experienced GI problems while choosing foods containing carrageenan reported that their symptoms disappeared and they felt better once they began to avoid foods that contained this seaweed extract.
Some manufacturers are voluntarily removing carrageenan from their products. Europe has banned it from infant formulas entirely.
Since carrageenan will always be listed among the ingredients of the product that contains it, you can avoid it by scanning all food labels and simply not choosing those foods which contain it. When carrageenan has been used in drinks, a label will always specify to “shake well” so the product does not separate. This is one ingredient for which there are no tricky or hidden words used on the labels.
There is a petition available that enables interested parties to alert the FDA, a federal agency, that they object to having carrageenan in their foods. By clicking on the link below (or copy/pasting it), you may sign that petition: