Is what you’re eating safe? It’s a reasonable question. As food science has evolved throughout the centuries, people have innovated with incredible forethought (think fermentation, canning foods, or pasteurization) and shameless disregard for safety (nasty examples include formaldehyde as a preservative for milk or lead to color candy).
The good news is, modern researchers and scientists are studying and scrutinizing the ingredients of widely used food ingredients to eliminate harmful products and verify what we eat is safe for consumption.
That’s why the discussion around carrageenan has been one we appreciate. People with concerns for their well-being and those of their families are trying to determine whether this common additive should be in the foods they keep in their refrigerator or pantry. For those who are looking to stay informed, here is what you need to know if you are worried about carrageenan health risks.
What Is Carrageenan?
For those who don’t know, let’s start with the basics. Carrageenan is an indigestible polysaccharide (an abundant complex carbohydrate) found in a variety of red seaweed species. For generations, human beings have used seaweed with carrageenan as everything from medicine to a source of food.
Since the mid-twentieth century, consumers well beyond coastal communities have experienced carrageenan in their diets. Food companies have used this natural product as an emulsifier or thickener for foods ranging from mayonnaise and margarine to peanut butter and ice cream. The result is a stable and smooth mixture of ingredients that would otherwise be immiscible.
Visually, the food looks great! No one wants to see the different ingredients of their chocolate milk or non-dairy creamer separated. Yet as we know, appearances aren’t everything when it comes to food: whether you can eat it safely is far more important.
Is Carrageenan Bad for You?
Before we determine whether carrageenan is food safe, let’s look at the story of how some healthy skepticism introduced this question to the public.
One of the first studies muddying the waters around the safety of carrageenan was written in the 1970s. The study was focused on whether types of carrageenan could be absorbed into the human body, depending on their molecular weight. They determined carrageenan with high molecular weight was not absorbed in the human GI tract (remember, it’s indigestible) and only those samples with an intermediate to low molecular weight were absorbed, which could cause inflammation.
Here’s where the confusion starts. The study broadly referred to all the sampled products as carrageenan, but any “carrageenan” with a molecular weight of 10 to 200 kDa (kilodaltons, which are a unit for measuring molecular mass) is actually poligeenan, a completely different product! And these were the only types of products that were recorded as digestible in the 1970s study.
Though poligeenan can be made from carrageenan, it has to go through a significant degradation process which requires very low acidity (under 2 pH) and temperatures above 176° Fahrenheit. For context, white distilled vinegar has a pH of 2.5 and lemon juice doesn’t go lower than a pH of 2.0. Essentially, there aren’t really any food products or processes where these conditions would be met.
Checking the Science
Any scientist will tell you it’s important to double and triple check any findings. Nothing is assumed as accurate unless it can repeatedly be verified. That’s why the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reevaluated carrageenan in 2018, due in large part to questions brought up by consumers eager to learn if the product was safe.
The results indicated that food-grade carrageenan showed no obvious peak of poligeenan during digestion and no adverse effects in chronic studies of rats. The EFSA recommended further reevaluation down the road (good science is repeatable science) and kept carrageenan as a food-safe ingredient. Similar studies like these contribute to the FDA’s continued stance on carrageen as being safe for humans.
Furthermore, other studies have been conducted to verify some of the negative findings in the past and they have not been able to reproduce the results. Science, especially when it is compliant with Good Laboratory Practices guidelines, should be able to replicate results in any laboratory without issues. To our knowledge, there haven’t been any studies that have produced the same results (rather than just repeating what was said in the original study).
If you love the delicious, good-looking food that’s made possible by carrageenan, you can take a sigh of relief and indulge. Scientists and researchers are always reviewing the data to be sure what they are sharing with the public is accurate. If you see studies or blogs that say carrageenan is unsafe, be willing to do a little digging to see if they can back up their claims and learn about the practices. When you do, you can say you’re a truly informed consumer.
More than just dispelling carrageenan health risks, the members of the Acadian SeaPlus team are looking to share information on the latest seaweed science. Check out our webinar for proven research.