The Carrageenan (Seaweed) Controversy and the Foods at the Center of It

Here is an unbiased look at what has become an issue in the food "world." Are you trying to learn more about carrageenan? You’re in for a wild ride. People are surprisingly passionate and opinionated about this innocuous topic (carrageenan is a food ingredient derived from seaweed), and they’re not afraid to show it. Which makes it difficult to find unbiased, science-based information online.

From powerful special-interest groups to bloggers to self-appointed food-label watchdogs, the fight to have carrageenan declared unsafe for human consumption is on. On the other side you have the U.S. FDA, European Commission, Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, Japan Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, World Health Organization, and respected scientists and toxicologists around the world, all of whom agree that carrageenan is safe and have approved its use in food.

While enthusiasts on both sides offer interesting and compelling arguments, what if you aren’t looking for an argument? What if you just want the unbiased facts and a list of foods that contain carrageenan so that you can decide for yourself?

If that’s the case, you’re in luck.

The anti-carrageenan claims

Despite how widespread the carrageenan controversy is, it can be traced back to the work of a single researcher: Joanne Tobacman. From 1997 through 2004, Tobacman published the results of several studies detailing a possible connection between carrageenan and various health-related issues—specifically ulcers, inflammation, and cancer. Her work received only limited recognition until 2012, when she became associated with the Cornucopia Institute.

Cornucopia, a special-interest group that works on behalf of American family farmers, was able to do what Tobacman could not: propel the issue of carrageenan safety into the public spotlight. Cornucopia used traditional and social media to raise alarm about the ingredient based on Tobacman’s research.

As a result, public opinion regarding carrageenan began to plummet. In 2016, the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) recommended that the United States Department of Agriculture remove carrageenan from its list of ingredients approved for use in organic foods (the USDA has not yet decided whether to accept this recommendation). Although the NOSB noted that “science sides pretty clearly with the safety of carrageenan” and “the body of scientific evidence does not support claims of widespread negative human health impacts from consumption of carrageenan,” the recommendation demonstrates just how much impact the carrageenan controversy is having.

The research-heavy rebuttal

Even as Cornucopia continued to promote anti-carrageenan research, scientists, researchers, and other experts began to voice their doubts. They questioned the objectivity of Tobacman’s work, noting that long before she had performed the bulk of her research, she had attempted to have carrageenan declared unsafe based on technical arguments (and been rejected). They identified possible flaws in her testing methods. They pointed out that she performed certain tests on unspecified materials, most likely a non-food-grade substance called poligeenan, and attributed the results to carrageenan. They noted that many of Tobacman’s published results could not be reproduced.

After reviewing the peer-reviewed research, which found  that carrageenan is safe and has no dangerous side effects whatsoever, and performing their own, the FDA and other regulatory agencies reaffirmed their support of carrageenan as a food additive.

An informed conclusion

So with the basics of the argument laid out, the question then is this: Should you keep carrageenan in your diet?

Well, that’s really up to you. “Healthy” means different things to different people, and if your definition of healthy includes cutting out all processed foods, then you’ll likely be cutting out carrageenan. On the other hand, if the only thing that makes you want to ditch carrageenan is the negative reputation it has on social media and among food bloggers, you might want to review the science.

Because if you trust the vast majority of the research, then carrageenan is safe. If you don’t trust the research or the food regulatory community, then maybe you should stay away from carrageenan. It’s your body, so it’s your call.

Which foods contain carrageenan?

Whether you want to embrace carrageenan or shun it, you’ll first need to know where to find it. Here’s a list of the various kinds of food that often contain carrageenan:

  • Almond milk
  • Buttermilk
  • Cereal bars
  • Chocolate milk
  • Coconut milk
  • Coconut water
  • Coffee creamer
  • Cottage cheese
  • Cream
  • Deli meats
  • Dipping sauces
  • Dressings
  • Eggnog
  • Hemp milk
  • Hot dogs
  • Ice cream
  • Infant formula
  • Jams/jellies
  • Juice
  • Kefir
  • Non-dairy frozen desserts
  • Non-dairy yogurt
  • Nutritional shakes
  • Oat milk
  • Pizza
  • Rice milk
  • Sour cream
  • Soymilk
  • Tortillas
  • Vegan cheese
  • Yogurt

As you can see, there are a lot of foods that contain carrageenan—including a number of items that are widely considered healthy alternatives to standard products. Vegetarians and vegans may be particularly surprised at how often carrageenan turns up in the foods they enjoy.

It’s your choice.

When all is said and done, carrageenan is a simple seaweed extract used in a wide variety of foods. But is that all it is? The argument continues, and it doesn’t look like the two sides are likely to reach an agreement anytime soon. Consistent evidence and decades of safe use support carrageenan as a safe, healthy food ingredient, while vehement opposition says otherwise.

Thankfully, when it comes to making the final decision for your diet, regulatory agencies and special-interest groups can only make suggestions. In the end, the carrageenan controversy all comes down to you.

Do the research, get the facts, and make your choice. After all, when it comes to the foods you eat, you are the regulating body.

5/22/2018 7:00:00 AM
Rachel Candaele
Written by Rachel Candaele
Rachel Candaele is a freelance writer who specializes in the scientific facts behind health claims. She received her degree in Foods, Nutrition, and Wellness Studies and has been putting her degree to use ever since, doing research and writing educational articles to help people be more aware of the science behind nutrit...
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