Who Decides What’s “Essential”?

Every five years, the USDA’s National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) reviews a long list of ingredients used in organic foods to determine their safety, sustainability, and essentiality. This includes both fully organic ingredients and those that are not organic but approved for use in organic foods.

The ingredient carrageenan, a food stabilizer that is naturally derived from seaweed, is currently undergoing such a review. Carrageenan has been used in countless organic foods in the United States for as long as there has been an

organic labeling program, in products that range from infant formula to ice cream.

As part of its review, a NOSB subcommittee has issued an initial recommendation to the larger board that carrageenan be “delisted” as an ingredient approved in organic food. This recommendation ignores generations of safe use, as well as a half-century of scientific research proving carrageenan’s safety; a sustainability profile that is unsurpassed; and properties that make it essential to many organic products.

While this recommendation is not a final decision, it illustrates a dangerous trend, in which unwarranted allegations voiced loudly by a very few can negatively affect millions of consumers.

Carrageenan: Safe, sustainable, essential

The safety of carrageenan is well-established and recognized by the NOSB. The ingredient has been used safely for decades and is one of the most researched of all stabilizers—historical and recent studies consistently prove it is safe.

Carrageenan’s sustainability is also well-established. The seaweed from which carrageenan is derived is sustainably harvested by 75,000 family farmers around the globe in one of the most environmentally friendly types of aquaculture: It uses no arable land, fresh water, chemicals, or fertilizers.

Carrageenan is an essential ingredient that has no organic equivalent. In fact, it is the only non-organic stabilizer approved for use in U.S. organic infant formula.

However, determining what makes an ingredient essential is not a clearly defined task, and there is some concern that the NOSB will step outside its purpose to deem carrageenan non-essential, despite all the best arguments.

If considered non-essential, carrageenan will no longer be approved for use in organic foods. And that’s bad news for consumers, whose favorite products will be reformulated, often with multiple ingredients, many of which are inferior and do not have carrageenan’s record of safety and sustainability.

Fear mongering and bullying

Why would the NOSB consider prohibiting the use of this safe, sustainable, and essential ingredient in organic foods?

Because carrageenan has been the victim of fear mongering and internet bullying. Relying on demonstrably flawed science, trade groups and others have ignited consumers against this safe ingredient. These food extremists have inundated the NOSB with requests to remove carrageenan from the approved additive list.

They have also riled up consumers to the point that some food manufacturers have reformulated away from carrageenan, even though they know it is both safe and provides superior recipe results.

Unfortunately, the NOSB appears to be weary of the activism and ready to yield to the emotions of a few loud voices rather than uphold their responsibilities to the USDA. It’s as if whoever shouts the loudest wins. Forget about sound science and decades of safe use.

The case for carrageenan

Forcing companies to replace carrageenan does a disservice both to the vast majority of consumers, who do not oppose the ingredient, and to a number of business considerations related to organic foods:

  • Many consumers are put off by the price premium of organic food. The suggested alternatives to carrageenan are often far more expensive, which will further increase the cost of organic foods.
  • A very short list of ingredients is a primary selling point for organic foods. In many reformulations, more than one ingredient is required to replace carrageenan, increasing the number of ingredients on organic food labels.
  • Carrageenan replaces animal fats in formulations, allowing more organic foods to satisfy vegan, kosher, and halal requirements.
  • Very little research has been done on the ingredients used to replace carrageenan; the safety of many of these alternatives is unknown.
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are prohibited in organic foods, yet one of the primary alternatives to carrageenan uses corn byproducts in its processing; sourcing non-GMO corn is incredibly difficult.

We hope you will voice your support for carrageenan as a safe, sustainable, and essential ingredient, joining a coalition of scientists, nutritionists, regulatory officials, food producers, and consumers. Take action; share your comments with the NOSB today.