Is Carrageenan Safe?

Is Carrageenan Safe?
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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.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Six hundred years ago, people living along the coast of Carragheen County, Ireland started using a red algae, which became 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, as well 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.”

But, that was all five 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, out of an abundance of caution.

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, which form the barrier between the outside world and our bloodstream. This was an in vitro study, though, in a petri dish. We still don’t know what effects, carrageenan has, if any, in whole human beings. Some researchers advise consumers to err on the side of caution, and 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 not proven hazard. Acrylamide is a chemical formed by cooking carbs 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? Already unhealthy foods. 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 more healthful foods—though I would suggest those with inflammatory bowel disease, or other gastrointestinal problems, try cutting out carrageenan, at least temporarily, to see if your symptoms improve.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to cquintin and stu_spivack via flickr, and National Cancer Institute via Wikimedia. Thanks to Ellen Reid for her Keynote help.

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Six hundred years ago, people living along the coast of Carragheen County, Ireland started using a red algae, which became 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, as well 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.”

But, that was all five 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, out of an abundance of caution.

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, which form the barrier between the outside world and our bloodstream. This was an in vitro study, though, in a petri dish. We still don’t know what effects, carrageenan has, if any, in whole human beings. Some researchers advise consumers to err on the side of caution, and 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 not proven hazard. Acrylamide is a chemical formed by cooking carbs 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? Already unhealthy foods. 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 more healthful foods—though I would suggest those with inflammatory bowel disease, or other gastrointestinal problems, try cutting out carrageenan, at least temporarily, to see if your symptoms improve.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to cquintin and stu_spivack via flickr, and National Cancer Institute via Wikimedia. Thanks to Ellen Reid for her Keynote help.

Doctor's Note

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:

For more context, please refer to the following associated blog post: Should We Avoid Titanium Dioxide? and Should Carrageenan be Avoided?

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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