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Overview

Carrageenan is a controversial food additive, but is any of the uncertainty warranted? According to the World Health Organization, carrageenan is safe and does not present any risk of digestive problems, liver cancer, inflammation, bowel ulcerations, or birth defects. Those claims are linked to poligeenan (a carcinogen), which is physiologically impossible to create in the human body as a byproduct of carrageenan. 

Carrageenan is a naturally-sourced ingredient derived from red seaweed. It’s extracted by either alkali or used as an emulsifier, thickener, and stabilizer in a wide variety of food products such as ice cream, baby formula, yogurt, and protein powders.

Natural. Made from seaweed. Used in baby formula. None of these are red flags and are usually good signs in the food industry.

And, yet, if you Google "Is carrageenan safe?" you'll be met with a variety of claims that would make almost anyone want to stay away from the seemingly harmless seaweed. 

So what's going on? A lot of confusion about the way carrageenan is extracted from seaweed (either by alkali or acid), which makes a difference in its safety for human consumption. Before you buy another product (or worry if carrageenan is dangerous), here's what you need to know for your health. 

What are the Dangers of Carrageenan?

High molecular weight carrageenan is called ‘food grade’ carrageenan. This is what you'll find in all of the common foods that included carrageenan.

From a safety perspective, carrageenan has a clean record. According to foodinsight.org, The FDA, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that carrageenan is not cancer-causing and that it is safe for human consumption.

And that's just the start of the evidence that supports the lack of health risks associated with food grade carrageenan (we'll explain non-food grade in a moment).

An independent review panel put together by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, did an extensive review examining decades of research on carrageenan. Their findings:

  • Carrageenan, when used at the levels it’s currently used in food to achieve the desired effects, is not hazardous to health.
  • Carrageenan in infant formula is safe for both healthy children and children with special medical needs.

Even the most recent research looked at 3 common forms of food carrageenan in the exact dose used in food products.

The results: “In conclusion, CGN (carrageenan) was not absorbed, and was not cytotoxic. It did not induce oxidative stress, and did not induce proinflammatory proteins.”

The bottom line: there is no science to support the claim that carrageenan is dangerous, causes inflammation, or is linked to cancer. It’s all speculation based on animal research, which has yet to be replicated in humans.

So why are people concerned?

It’s a misunderstanding that carrageenan converts to poligeenan in the body, which is a dangerous toxin. Remember how we discussed that carrageenan can be extracted in different ways? There is a low molecular weight version is called "degraded" and "poligeenan." While poligeenan has been designated as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, carrageenan has not. And Poligeenan is not approved for use in food.

That hasn't stopped some from sharing their concerns that carrageenan can convert to poligeenan in your body and present risks, which is why some people fear consumption.

Why Carrageenan is Not a Risk

The poligeenan theories have one fatal flaw: science shows it is physiologically impossible for carrageenan to convert to poligeenan in the human body. 

In order to create poligeenan, you need a combination of heat and acid. Some bloggers suggest that your stomach acids + the heat from your body is enough to make this happen. But, those claims are not even debatable.

To create poligeenan, processed seaweed needs to experience temperatures in excess of 190°F (75° hotter than the highest survivable body temperature ever recorded) for a sustained amount of time, while also being subjected to acidity comparable to levels found in car batteries. As you might imagine, the pH of the human stomach and the time that food is in the stomach is not sufficient for this change to take place.

The studies that carrageenan detractors have based their research on have been done either on animals or on cells in Petri dishes. Not to mention, in many of the studies, dosages given to animals are far higher than would be typically consumed by the average person. As of now, the results of studies showing that carrageenan is harmful to humans have never been replicated.

Should You Avoid Carrageenan?

Based on all the research, there is no need to avoid carrageenan. Again, there's a reason why it's an improved ingredient for baby foods, which have some of the strictest standards for safety and health. But, if you’re still not convinced that it’s safe to eat, you can purchase carrageenan-free products. 

 

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