Should You Be Concerned About Carrageenan in Your Food?
Carrageenan is an ingredient that helps emulsify, stabilize and thicken packaged foods. An FDA-approved food additive refined from red seaweed, carrageenan is found in a wide array of items including some dairy foods like ice cream, chocolate milk and sour cream, plant-based milk-alternatives such as soy, almond, hemp and coconut “milks,” and frozen pizzas.
Over the years, carrageenan's safety has been questioned, with some studies linking the additive to intestinal inflammation. However, recent research findings published in the journal Food and Toxicology and funded by the industry-backed International Food Additives Council indicate that carrageenan does not cross the intestinal epithelium — a barrier that keeps out the bad stuff and lets in good stuff — and does not cause intestinal inflammation. The findings may seem biased to some, since the study was funded by the food industry — this alone, however shouldn’t indicate bias. The food industry has a vested interest in only using ingredients that are safe for its consumers.
While many companies are choosing to remove carrageenan because their customers want them to, it’s important to consider the implications of decisions like this. When companies replace an ingredient that has been used for decades, and which science and the FDA says is safe, what are they using for its replacement? For many foods where carrageenan is used to prevent separation, a simple “shake well before using” statement on the label might suffice. However, other products might need a substitute ingredient. As we’re seeing with the plastic and metal liner BPA, the replacement is also linked to adverse health outcomes. When consumers demand ingredients be removed from a product, what they’re also perhaps unwittingly demanding is that these ingredients be replaced with something less researched and lacking the same comprehensive understanding of long-used ingredients' safety and use levels.
Packaged foods need food additives like carrageenan to have an acceptable quality and shelf life. While carrageenan is typically only used in small amounts, some shoppers may still wish to avoid carrageenan-containing foods. Buying fewer packaged foods, checking ingredients lists and eating less food overall can help reduce intake. If you have time to grow, harvest, prep and cook everything you eat to avoid certain additives, then more power to you! Since ingredients aren’t eaten in isolation, we know it’s our eating patterns overall that contribute to healthful diets. If you’re cutting out food additives like carrageenan but still consuming excess amounts of sodium and calories, for example, and not getting enough physical activity, then your overall health isn’t going to improve.
Jessica Levings, MS, RDN, is the owner of Balanced Pantry and has more than 10 years of experience developing nutrition communications materials and working on regulatory issues around food labeling. Read her blog and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.