Carrageenan is a food additive used as a thickener and fat substitute in a variety of dairy and nondairy products. Concerns about potential intestinal tract damage are placed in the context of dietary consequences.
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, now the source of carrageenan, a food additive used as a thickener in dairy and nondairy products, and as a fat substitute, perhaps most famously in the failed McLean Deluxe.
In 2008 I raised a concern about it. We had known for decades that carrageenan had harmful effects on laboratory animals, but this was the first study done on human cells to "suggest that carrageenan exposure may have a role in development of human intestinal pathology.” This was all 5 years ago, though. What's the update?
Well, after the activation of inflammatory pathways was demonstrated in actual human colon tissue samples, Europe pulled it from infant formula, thinking that just might be getting too much at 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 that form the barrier between the outside world and our bloodstream. This was just an in vitro study, though, 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 [it's] 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 a lot of these 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.
Similarly, I'd use potential concerns about carrageenan as additional motivation to avoid unhealthy foods, but until we know more I wouldn't cut out healthful foods, though I would suggest those with inflammatory bowel syndrome or other gastrointestinal problems try cutting out carrageenan at least temporarily to see if your symptoms improve.
To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.
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Titanium dioxide is another additive used in nondairy substitutes. See Titanium Dioxide & Inflammatory Bowel Disease for the latest on its safety. My acrylamide video can be found at Acrylamide in French Fries.
Other videos on food additives include:
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