What is carrageenan?
Carrageenan is a food additive that has been used in various food products as a stabilizing and emulsifying agent. It is derived from red seaweed and often added to food items such as nut milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and meat products. It’s a controversial and debatable topic of concern due to some researchers claiming carrageenan to be a toxic substance, while a certain lobby of people in the food industry and other experts have refuted the claims.
Since the 1960s, there has been a lot of research that has found carrageenan to be harmful for human consumption. But all of these studies have been in animals or cells outside the body (in vitro). No studies have been conducted on humans.
What does the research say and what’s the controversy?
Two varieties of carrageenan are available
- Food-grade carrageenan
- Non food-grade carrageenan (degraded carrageenan)
Food-grade carrageenan is U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved in the United States for use as a food additive.
Degraded carrageenan, also known as poligeenan, is a proven carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) and, hence, is not approved for use in foods. For long, poligeenan has been used to induce inflammation in animals for research purposes. But researchers have found poligeenan labeled as carrageenan in some products. In some of them, it was as much as 25 percent.
A 2017 review said that even food-grade carrageenan can cause inflammation and lead to digestive illnesses.
A 2018 review found no bad effect of food-grade carrageenan on human health.
Most scientists believe that even food-grade carrageenan can get degraded and turn into poligeenan after it comes into contact with acid in the stomach.
Carrageenan-containing products should not be contaminated with more than five percent (safe level) of degraded carrageenan. When the carrageenan manufacturers’ trade group was asked to test 12 samples of food-grade carrageenan, every sample had more than the safe level of the degraded carrageenan.
Many people have reported their bad experiences of carrageenan on their health. This includes side effects such as bloating and irritable bowel syndrome (manifesting as diarrhea, bloating, belly pain or cramps). They found relief when they discontinued carrageenan-containing products from their diet. But the lobby in favor of carrageenan has deemed these reports as inconclusive due to a lack of clinical trials to substantiate the same. Due to potential health risks, researchers are reluctant to conduct human trials to prove their point.
The food industry is against dropping carrageenan from the composition of their products, as it makes the organic food tasty and palatable due to its fatty texture and acceptable taste. They believe that if such an important additive is removed, it may lead to people completely avoiding eating organic foods.
Research on carrageenan is still ongoing to find the actual impact of its consumption on the human body.
Should you consume carrageenan-containing products?
Scientists have been urging the government to ban the use of carrageenan as a food additive. They strongly feel that carrageenan-containing products are highly unsafe for human consumption. But these are animal- and cell-line-based studies, and studies on humans are yet to be carried out to prove the propositions put forward by the researchers.
Scientists believe that carrageenan can induce inflammation and lead to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, digestive disorders, heart diseases, neurological disorders and even something as serious as cancer.
Because carrageenan does not have any nutritional value, it does no harm to eliminate it from your diet. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made it mandatory for the food manufacturers to mention clearly on their food products if they contain carrageenan. In the absence of a stabilizer such as carrageenan, your drink may tend to separate. But that is OK. You can just shake the bottle and drink it.
Some people report that eliminating carrageenan from the diet has helped relieve the troubles with their digestion such as bloating and diarrhea. If you experience similar symptoms, see if discontinuing carrageenan-containing products help you.
Talk to a doctor if you continue to experience health issues even after discontinuing carrageenan from your diet. This may mean that there is something other than carrageenan that is causing your symptoms.
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