Carrageenan is getting a lot of attention lately; from nutrition enthusiasts to renowned food scientists, it seems like everyone wants to know more about this common food ingredient. And perhaps the number-one question on everyone’s mind is this: Is it safe?
The answer? Yes. Yes it is. Take a look at this abridged history of carrageenan research, and see for yourself how reliable science supports carrageenan.
Here’s why we know it’s safe, and you should too.
Carrageenan is an additive that’s naturally derived from red seaweed. You could easily make it at home to add richness, reduce fat and stabilize your favorite foods.
The very best science continues to demonstrate the safety of carrageenan in infant formula and food (including food labeled organic), despite a small group of researchers who disagree.
Opposing information about the safety of carrageenan often comes from:
studies that in no way accurately represent the way we consume carrageenan,
studies in which researchers interpreted their results in ways other scientists found
unrealistic, and, in some cases, research that failed to meet professional standards.
Flawed science still delivers results that can be referenced over and over again by anyone with an agenda.
We decided the best thing was to give you a look at the good and the bad, an overview of the significant research that’s gone into carrageenan. See for yourself why our dedicated food scientists, along with some of the leading researchers and regulatory agencies in the world, are certain carrageenan is safe in our food.
‘Poligeenan’ is not carrageenan
When some discuss carrageenan studies, particularly those implying that carrageenan is unsafe, the test material is unspecified. Many early studies used a test material called poligeenan that is never used in food and is entirely different from food-grade carrageenan. In this study, poligeenan was dissolved in water given to rats. After six months of exposure to this chemical the rats showed chronic inflammatory responses. That result is not in question, but the chemical given to the rats is not what we consume in food.1
The same was true in an animal test of monkeys
A selection of monkeys were given a material that is nothing like the carrageenan we use in foods. These monkeys lost weight and developed serious intestinal issues. A second group of monkeys were given food-grade carrageenan—the same carrageenan we eat. The monkeys who had the food-grade carrageenan remained healthy and gained weight.2
BOTTOM LINE: be sure to check what is being tested in a study before you accept the conclusions.
Serving size matters
In studies where food-grade carrageenan is fed to animals in the amounts and ways we use it in foods, the results more clearly confirm the safety of carrageenan. In this study rats were fed food-grade carrageenan in skim milk for at least six months. After that time, the rats were all in good health and scientists found that food-grade carrageenan consumed at the levels used in food “does not constitute a hazard.”3
Proven to be baby safe
Infant baboons were given food-grade carrageenan in formula from birth to 112 days of age. They were given four times the amount of food-grade carrageenan normally found in milk-based human infant formula and still had no negative effects from the food-grade carrageenan.4
When we think about ‘exposure’ in animal testing it is not just about dosage. It’s also about duration.
In this particular study, three groups of rats and hamsters were fed food-grade carrageenan in their chow, rather than in water or by being injected, The scientists tested varying amounts of carrageenan in food over the lives of the animals and found no harm.5
Expert review further confirms carrageenan’s safety
In the mid ‘90’s the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), an independent scientific review panel, decided to reevaluate carrageenan ‘s toxicology profile as significant time had passed since the last review. They were particularly interested in better understanding the potential effects in the colon.6
Prompted by this re-evaluation new research began that was conducted under Good Laboratory Practices (GLP).7
Such testing further confirmed that carrageenan was a safe and acceptable additive for foods and the panel maintained that carrageenan was completely safe for use in foods.8
The challenge of drawing human comparisons from non-animal testing
In an early non-GLP study, scientists added carrageenan to human colon cells and found that carrageenan had harmful effects on the cells. Other scientists using Good Laboratory Practices could not get the same results and saw no harmful effects under the same research conditions. It was later found that the colon cells used in the original studies had changed to abnormal cells, calling those results into question. Drawing human conclusions as to the safety of carrageenan based on a cellular test that cannot be repeated by other scientists under GLP conditions is unwise and not helpful.9, 10, 11
In another example of a GLP study, researchers fed carrageenan as part of a diet in varying doses to rats to see if they could achieve results similar to earlier non-GLP work suggesting that carrageenan could cause digestive distress. They could not. They found the rats had no adverse reactions to food-grade carrageenan.8
More science confirms the safety of carrageenan
The body of science regarding food-grade carrageenan has established the safety of carrageenan for use in food beyond any reasonable doubt. Because carrageenan attaches tightly to proteins and is not digested in the body, it does not cause digestive distress or cancer.
As evidenced by another GLP study, piglets were fed piglet formula that contained carrageenan at levels seven times that found in a milk-based human infant formula. Scientists found no ill effects and found that the carrageenan was excreted.12, 13
Opponents of carrageenan often say that only scientists who are paid by food companies vouch for carrageenan safety. That has never been true and it is less true today.
Some of the most independent scientific review panels and regulatory agencies in the world have repeatedly examined carrageenan safety and reached positive conclusions.
Most recently, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), an independent expert review panel put together by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, did an extensive review of decades of safety research on carrageenan.
JECFA, a highly regarded international independent and objective scientific review panel, confirmed:
Carrageenan, when used at the levels it’s currently used in food to achieve the desired effects, is not hazardous to health.
Carrageenan in infant formula is safe for both healthy children and children with special medical needs.14
The truth about dietary safety is in the details
There are things we know about food-grade carrageenan that should be fundamental when constructing a carrageenan study.
- It has been well established that carrageenan binds tightly to proteins in foods so an animal test should feed carrageenan with an accompanying protein. Feeding animals carrageenan in drinking water or some other form minus a protein may produce different results.
- Neither the temperatures nor other conditions in the human digestive system would allow carrageenan to be broken down into something other than food-grade carrageenan and certainly not poligeenan. Any research that assumes carrageenan turns into something else when eaten by animals is suspect.
- Carrageenan is excreted when eaten with protein. It does not enter the bloodstream. Therefore, injecting an animal with carrageenan has no connection to the way we eat carrageenan in food.
- In vitro (cellular) research has occasionally tested carrageenan using breast or liver cells. Since carrageenan does not enter the bloodstream, it therefore could not reach these cells. This kind of research does not tell us much that is relevant.
- There is nothing more fundamental than testing the right materials. Early tests that used poligeenan as a substitute for food-grade carrageenan are completely misleading. The testing of cellular material that has been identified as flawed by the provider is inherently suspect.11
- Fabian, T., Abraham, R., Coulston, F and Goldberg, M. (1973) Carrageenan-induced Squamous metaplasia of the Rectal Mucosa in the Rat. Gastroenterology 65: 265-276.
- Benitz KF, Golberg L, Coulston F. (1973). Intestinal effects of carrageenans in the Rhesus monkey. Food Cosmet Toxicol, 11, 565–75.
- Tomarelli RM, Tucker Jr WD, Baumann LM, et al. (1974). Nutritional quality of processed milk containing carrageenan. J Agri Fd Chem, 22, 819–24.
- McGill Jr HC, McMahan CA, Wigodsky HS, Sprinz H. (1977). Carrageenan in formula and infant baboon development. Gastroenterology, 73, 512–7.
- Rustia M, Shubik P, Patil K. (1980). Lifespan carcinogenicity test with native carrageenan in rats and hamsters. Cancer Lett, 11, 1–10.
- Safety evaluation of certain food additives. WHO Food Additives Series, No. 42. Prepared by the 51st meeting of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). IPCS 1999, nos 927-956 on INCHEM.
- Samuel M. Cohen, Nobuyuki Ito. A Critical Review of the Toxicological Effects of Carrageenan and Processed Eucheuma Seaweed on the Gastrointestinal Tract. Critical Reviews in toxicology, 32(5): 413-444 (2002).
- Weiner, ML, Nuber, D., Blakemore WR, et al. (2007). A 90-day dietary study of kappa carrageenan with emphasis on the gastrointestinal tract. Food Chem Toxicol, 45, 98-106.
- Alip Borthakur, Sumit Bhattacharyya, Pradeep K. Dudeja, Joanne K. Tobacman Carrageenan induces interleukin-8 production through distinct Bcl10 pathway in normal human colonic epithelial cells.
American Journal of Physiology - Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology Published 1 March 2007.
- McKim JM, Wilga PC et al. (2015). The common food additive carrageenan is not a ligand for Toll-Like- Receptor 4 (TLR4) in an HEK293-TLR4 reporter cell-line model. Food Chem Toxicol 78, 153-158.
- Weiner ML. (2016) Parameters and pitfalls to consider in the conduct of food additive research, Carrageenan as a case study. Food Chem Toxicol. 87, 31-44.
- Blakemore WR, Davis SR et al. (2014). Carrageenan analysis. Part 1: Characterisation of the carrageenan test material and stability in swine-adapted infant formula. Food Additives and Contaminants: Part A.
- Weiner ML, Ferguson, HE, Thorsrud, BA et al. (2015) An infant formula toxicity and toxicokinetic feeding study on carrageenan in preweaning piglets with special attention to the immune system and
gastrointestinal tract. Food Chem Toxicol. 77, 120-131.
- Safety evaluation of certain food additives. WHO Food Additives Series No. 70. Prepared by the 79th meeting of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert committee on food Additives (JECFA). Carrageenan addendum pp. 3-43. IPCS. 2015.