If you’re a label reader who scours ingredient lists, carrageenan may have caught your eye. Of course, that one glance was quickly followed by you asking yourself, “What in the world is carrageenan?” Can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it, right? Well, here’s what we know for sure. Carrageenan is a food additive, derived from red seaweed. It’s commonly used as an emulsifier, meaning it keeps ingredients from separating. Though it is also acts as a thickening agent in foods such as ice cream, deli meat and dairy milk alternatives.
Carrageenan has been around for a couple centuries, but its usage has spiked over the last 30 years – from 5,000 tons of seaweed harvested for carrageenan in the 1970s to more than 200,000 tons today. Food producers simply prefer this additive over others in order to extend the shelf life of a product and meet consumer expectations. For instance, chocolate milk is able to maintain its desirable creaminess because of carrageenan.
Still, it’s derived from seaweed. What kind of damage can it really do?
Some evidence, specifically studies that were conducted by the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago, raised questions about its safety. Ultimately, they claim carrageenan intake leads to digestive diseases, inflammation and even cancer.
The caveat with scientific research is that it’s only reliable – and accurate – if the study was replicated and produced the same results time and time again. New research by the International Food Additives Council (IFAC) was unable to reproduce the same outcomes as previously conducted in Chicago, specifically regarding carrageenan’s impact on inflammation of the intestines. The IFAC research seems to confirm carrageenan as a safe food additive. They’re not alone. Other scientists say they tried to confirm these laboratory results and were unsuccessful, as well. Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), European Commission and World Health Organization (WHO) all still believe carrageenan is safe in food.
Meanwhile, a member of the original Chicago research teams does not consider the methods of the latest research to be exactly the same as the original.
Science aside, you should continue to read labels and constantly evaluate your specific health needs. As you do with any other ingredient or food, avoid carrageenan if you feel it contributes to a negative reaction in your body, particularly your gastrointestinal tract. Chances are, you can find a carrageenan-free alternative to almost any product.
In general, carrageenan does not need to be avoided based on the scientific evidence available. Always keep in mind that food additives like carrageenan, among others, are typically found in pre-packaged, processed foods. Sticking to real, whole foods and making most meals and snacks from fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and unrefined whole grains will limit the amount of total additives you consume.
Foods that may contain carrageenan:
- Chocolate milk
- Ice cream
- Sour cream
- Cottage cheese
- “Squeezable” yogurt
- Nut-based milks (almond milk, coconut milk, etc.)
- Soy desserts
- Sliced turkey
- Prepared chicken
- Nutritional drinks
- Canned soup
- Microwaveable dinners
- Frozen pizza