The Buzz: Carrageenan

What’s the buzz?
The food additive carrageenan may cause a variety of health problems.

What does the science say?
Carrageenan is an food additive made from seaweed that is commonly used as a thickener in plant-based milks, cottage cheese, ice cream, deli meats, and vegan dairy alternatives. Critics of carrageenan claim it can cause inflammation, digestive distress, gluten intolerance, autoimmune disorders, and even colon cancer. The FDA approves carrageenan for use in the general food supply but the National Organic Standards Board recently voted to to nix its use in organic foods due to concerns over whether its processing methods are truly in line with organic standards.

So, are the claims against carrageenan true? Much of the hoopla stems from a controversial 2001 meta-analysis of 45 animal studies, which concluded that carrageenan’s inflammatory side effects on animals warrant its removal from use in human food. However, the studies reviewed did not distinguish between the use of food-grade carrageenan (used in food processing) and its degraded form, which has been determined “possibly carcinogenic in humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. While very small amounts of degraded carrageenan have been detected in food-grade carrageenan according to the watchdog group the Cornucopia Institute, both the World Health Organization, the Food, & Agriculture Organization, and the FDA have concluded it is safe for human consumption.

As far as carrageenan’s possible effect on digestive woes, the jury is still out as well. While some studies have shown that very large doses have caused intestinal distress and ulcers in animals, other studies found no adverse effects. Either way, research on animals does not translate directly to humans. Without concrete evidence in either direction, testing the effects of removing it from your diet may be the way to go, as some people have reported lessened symptoms when removing products containing carrageenan from their diets.

What’s the takeaway?
While major global health organizations have determined food-grade carrageenan does not pose a cancer risk, more research is needed to understand its relation to digestive distress. If you’re concerned about the possible effects of carrageenan, choose foods that do not contain this compound. The easiest way to avoid carrageenan is to stick with whole, unprocessed foods and read labels on dairy products (or alternatives), or look for organic versions of those products. If you have digestive or other health problems, you may want to work with a medical professional to rule out other more likely causes first.  

Read more about the safety of carrageenan and one dietitian’s perspective on its effect on digestive health.