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Is Carrageenan Safe?

Six hundred years ago, people living along the coast of Carragheen County, Ireland started using a red algae, which came to be known as Irish moss, to make a jellied dessert. This moss is now the source of carrageenan, a fat substitute (perhaps most famously used in the failed McLean Deluxe) and a food additive used as a thickener in dairy and nondairy products.

In 2008 I raised a concern about carrageenan. We had known for decades that it had harmful effects on laboratory animals, but in 2008 the first study on human cells to “suggest that carrageenan exposure may have a role in development of human intestinal pathology” was conducted. This was all five years ago, though. What’s the update?

After the activation of inflammatory pathways was demonstrated in actual human colon tissue samples, Europe pulled it from infant formula, concerned that infants might be getting too much at such a vulnerable age. The latest suggests carrageenan consumption could possibly lead to a leaky gut by disrupting the integrity of the tight junctions that form around the cells lining our intestine—the barrier between our bloodstream and the outside world. This was just an in vitro study, though, done in a Petri dish. We still don’t know what effects, if any, occur in whole human beings. Some researchers advise consumers to select food products without carrageenan, accusing the FDA of “ignoring [its] harmful potential.”

Personally, after having reviewed the available evidence, I continue to view carrageenan the way I view acrylamide, another potential, but unproven hazard. Acrylamide is a chemical formed by cooking carbohydrates at high temperatures. So should we avoid eating such foods, like the EPA suggests? Well, “Food safety concerns must also be considered [in the context of dietary] consequences.” Where’s it found the most? Foods that are already unhealthy.

So, sure, use your concern about the probable carcinogen acrylamide as just another reason to avoid potato chips and French fries, but until we know more I wouldn’t cut out healthful foods like whole grain bread. (For more on Acrylamide, see my video Acrylamide in French Fries).

Similarly, I’d use potential concerns about carrageenan as additional motivation to avoid unhealthy foods, but I wouldn’t cut out healthful foods until we know more. I would, however, suggest that those with inflammatory bowel syndrome or other gastrointestinal problems try cutting out carrageenan at least temporarily to see if your symptoms improve.

Titanium dioxide is another additive used in nondairy substitutes. See Titanium Dioxide & Inflammatory Bowel Disease for the latest on its safety.

Other videos on food additives include:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Related:
Preventing & Treating Diarrhea With Probiotics
Avoid Carnitine and Lethicin Supplements
The Safety of Tarragon

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Dr. Michael Greger

A founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues. Currently Dr. Greger serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at The Humane Society of the United States. Hundreds of his nutrition videos are freely available at NutritionFacts.org.

91 comments

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6:24AM PST on Nov 17, 2014

http://www.foodinsight.org/blogs/why-you-should-care-about-carrageenan

2:12AM PST on Dec 12, 2013

Makes sense not to cut out the healthy at this point. I knew it was in some Almond Milk and yogurt, but didn't know about the whole grain bread. Thank you!

8:54PM PST on Nov 19, 2013

Thank you!

3:04PM PST on Nov 15, 2013

I've eaten it and not noticed any problems, but maybe it's a case of certain people being prone to allergies like wheat or strawberries, or perhaps in just moderation it's okay or not in processed foods. Thanks.

12:19PM PST on Nov 15, 2013

This ignores the fact that the Irish have been eating this for CENTURIES W/O ANY REPORTED INCREASE OF PROBLEMS!

7:49PM PST on Nov 14, 2013

I have seen some products using gellan gum, locust bean gum, etc instead of carageenan- we will see if they are any safer!

5:51PM PST on Nov 12, 2013

I grew up along the west coast of Ireland and my family have harvested carrageen for personal use for years. It's rinsed with clean water to remove sand and other little creatures that may hiding in there and then it is left out to dry in the sun until it is crisp and then stored. My mother would make a milk pudding, let it go cold and it would set as children we loved it and if you had a cold you would drink it warm. Some make it with water and lemon. Never caused me any stomach problems. A lot more harmful food products on the market than carrageen. Long live the use of seaweed!!

3:03PM PST on Nov 12, 2013

Thank you for this valuable information...

4:50AM PST on Nov 12, 2013

Thank you for the evidence based article. No evidence doesn't mean evidence that it isn't harmful (but also doesn't mean it is).

1:38AM PST on Nov 12, 2013

thank you for sharing the article

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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