Should Carrageenan Be Avoided?

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? (See Is Carrageenan Safe?)

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, we can use our concern about the probable carcinogen,acrylamide as yet 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 like cream cheese, 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 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:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: cafemama / Flickr

  • Ann

    So I can keep drinking Almond Milk?

    • JacquieRN

      Silk Almond Milk does not have carrageenan.

  • Emy

    It’s extremely difficult to find milk alternatives that don’t have this chemical additive- even some almond milk brands that once did not use this additive now do. Frustrating.

    • Tab

      Pacific Naturals Oat milk and seven grain milk do not have it in them. So Delicious cashew milks also do not have it in them. Here is a good website to keep in mind:
      http://www.cornucopia.org/shopping-guide-to-avoiding-organic-foods-with-carrageenan/

    • It’s easy to make almond milk at home. Here are 2 ways.
      1. Just throw a small handful of almonds into the high speed blender with 2-3 c. water and a few ice cubes. Or grind the almonds in a coffee mill first and then blend. Occasionally we’ll strain it using a $2 nylon paint strainer bag from Home Depot – they’re easy to clean.

      Sometimes we’ll add a couple drops of stevia.

      2. Slightly more time consuming, but some say it reduces bitterness:
      Cover the almonds with boiling water and let sit for 10 minutes. The skins will peel right off. Then blend with water.

      If you want to make a lot, 1/2 c of almonds + 1/2 gallon of water.

      • Thea

        Kristin: Nice! Thanks for the tips!

      • Gadea

        Thank you.

    • I love Westsoy brand soy milk. Only 2 ingredients in their original unsweetened milk: water and soy beans. Also, Eden has a good one with 2 ingredients :)

      • Kitsy Hahn

        Ditto here regarding Westsoy unsweetened soy milk. Every once in a while I’m tempted to get their fortified version, but then when I see tricalcium phosphate as one of the ingredients, I hesitate — yet again. Am sure it’s perfectly fine, but IMO, the fewer the added ingredients, the better.

        “Filtered water, organic soymilk (filtered water, whole organic soybeans), organic dehydrated cane juice, tricalcium phosphate, sea salt, vitamin A palmitate, vitamin D2”

  • Toni

    I have colitis ulcerosa and I use products that include carrageenan, no problems here. No flare ups. Vegan diet is the answer. I only get flare ups when very very stressed and when I haven’t been sleeping well.

  • carrie

    Purely circumstantial evidence, but it seems that if I drink almond milk with carrageenan several days in a row, fairly sudden, unexplained diarrhea will happen – usually once only and then I’m fine. The carrageenan is the only thing in my diet that looks like it could be the culprit. Same thing happens with gellan gum.

  • Does this go for carrageenan as an additive only, or as part of an whole food like Irish Moss? Have these studies been done with whole foods like Irish Moss. or just with isolated carrageenan or carrageenan additives in processed foods. I think the issues would be with the later.

  • debbiey

    Regarding the safety of carrageenan, there has been an
    amazing amount of misinformation being blogged about carrageenan being unsafe
    as a food ingredient. In spite of this misinformation, carrageenan continues as
    the safe food ingredient it has always been. If it were not, the principal
    regulatory agencies of the world (US FDA, FAO/WHO JECFA, EU EFSA, and Japan
    Ministry of Health) would not approve its use, and all of them give the
    necessary approvals. The only application restricted as a precautionary measure
    is stabilizing liquid infant formula and a definitive toxicology is about to be
    published that is expected to remove this restriction.

    Why all the concern about the safety of using carrageenan in foods? Starting in
    the 1960s there have been research studies showing that if excessive doses of
    carrageenan are consumed in animal trials inflammation can be induced in the
    small intestine. Likewise, inappropriate methods of introducing the carrageenan
    into the animals, i.e. in the animals’ only source of drinking water, have
    induced an inflammatory response in the small intestine. However, there has
    never been a validated inflammatory response in humans over the seventy plus
    years carrageenan has been used in foods. The anecdotal “upset tummies”
    reported in blogs as coming from consuming a food containing carrageenan are
    hardly

    reliable sources of information on the safety of carrageenan.

    Inflammatory responses in animals only occur when carrageenan can cross the
    blood membrane barrier of the small intestine. This only occurs when the
    extreme feeding conditions mentioned above are employed. Normal feeding regimes
    induce no such response.

    Over the last decade a group of molecular biologists at the University of
    Illinois at Chicago lead by Dr Joanne Tobacman have been exploring the in vitro
    interaction of carrageenan with various genes and conclude that carrageenan can
    cause inflammation in the gut via a binding mechanism involving TLR-4
    receptors. This group also concluded that carrageenan degrades in the gut and
    the degraded carrageenan can permeate the membrane barrier. Recent studies
    refute both of these claims, and furthermore this recent research questions the
    validity using in vitro studies to mimic the in vivo events in the GI tract
    when a human consumes a food containing carrageenan.

    The bottom line on the safety issue is that in spite of all the efforts to
    downgrade or question the safety of carrageenan, particularly by bloggers,
    carrageenan is a safe food ingredient in all of the major regulatory jurisdictions
    of the world.

  • I guess it is time to make our own soy/almond milks.

  • Mike Quinoa

    Not sure if you can buy this in the US (it’s processed in Quebec), but I buy Natura brand soy milk in aseptic cartons . It’s unsweetened (among other flavours), organic, and whole-bean—and no carrageenan. All the soy beans are sourced from local farmers within a 150K radius of the plant, which I like as well.

    • Mike Quinoa

      D’oh! I forgot, it’s non-GMO too.

  • Mark JoneS

    What about an old person who use thickener in their drinks due to them having a problem with their swallow (due to stroke etc). Is this a problem?

  • Julie-Ann Hair

    Vitasoy calci plus has no Carrageenan

  • Jens Butsch

    Woow your post answered several questions I had for a while. Is Acrylamide only in fries and chips or are there other foods I should avoid or minimize?

  • Claudia

    Joann Tobacman, M.D. (College of Medicine, Univ. of Illinois/Chicago), has been studying the effects of carrageenan on the gut for many years. She feels it should not be in our food supply. A response to an email I sent: “I have been studying the effects of carrageenan on human cells for the past decade. We are continuing to study the mechanisms by which it causes inflammation and damages human cells, and appreciate your interest. Most of the recent work is in scientific journals that are listed through PubMed.”

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  • Derby City Vegan

    Dr. Greger, as a chemist I am very concerned about exposure to acrylamide. Acrylamide is a powerful alkylating agent, ironically enough by Michael addition. Since genes can be turned on and off by alkylation, any alkylating agent, such as acrylamide, should be avoided whenever possible.

  • Sharon

    If you have an issue with carrageenan watch out for similar seaweed additives in foods and medicine such as agar or alginates/alginic acids/sodium or calcium alginate. These and MSG cause me symptoms identical to my issues with accidental gluten ingestion. Whenever I meet a celiac who has not healed I tell them to eliminate foods eith these additives. I have not met anyone for which this advice had not helped.

  • Lee

    I know for an absolute indisputable fact that if I eat carrageenan, my abdomen blows up to a massive size within about 15 minutes, I get painful cramps, and then diarrhoea. One teaspoon (maybe less) of cream thickened with 407 is enough to cause the reaction. I’m just so glad I finally figured out what I was reacting to. Everything’s ‘safe’ until it’s not. Have we not already learned that the hard way? If this stuff can have such severe immediate reaction in some people, what of its potential long term effects? Yes, I’m just another person on the internet telling her story, but I’ll go with my personal experience over your ‘facts’ (which simply don’t hold true for me).

  • Soph

    What algae-based EPA/DHA supplement does not contain carrageenan? I have a hard time finding one. Thanks

  • Mimi

    In vitro ≠ in vivo
    Physicians can be biased. But numerous national food safety agencies are far more careful in their conclusions.
    http://www3.uakron.edu/chima/text/Concerns%20about%20Additives.pdf

  • Olivia

    Dr. Greger, I don’t think your information is current, and I think you’re giving recommendations that may hurt some people. I checked with the European Union, and carrageenan is allowed in formula for babies (defined as children 12 months and younger). The World Health Organization also allows it for use in baby formula and premature baby formula. On the other hand, gellan gum, which some companies have been using instead of carrageenan, is NOT allowed by the European Union or the World Health Organization for baby formula. Gellan gum is made from a bacteria found in pond scum, and it’s grown in vats like Xanthan gum, which has been linked by the Food and Drug Administration to death in infants. The Center for Science in the Public Interest states on their website that people should avoid both Xanthan gum and gellan gum. These are biologically synthesized additives that don’t have the benefit of being used in the food supply for hundreds of years, like other food ingredients have been, so there’s no knowing how safe they will be in the population when a lot of people start eating them. Please…refresh this post!