Carrageenan: Risks and Reality
This article includes excerpts from the report: Carrageenan: How a Natural Food Additive is Making Us Sick.
If it’s in our food, it must be safe to eat, right? We can say that about countless ingredients that have been proven to be unsafe. Carrageenan is one of them.
How does this happen? How is it that a harmful ingredient is allowed into—and in some cases thousands—of food items? Just look at the FDA’s recent ruling on trans fat. You’ll find trans fats in processed foods including frozen meals, margarine, desserts, even movie popcorn. People have been eating trans fats for decades, and likely suffered health issues as a result. Now, the FDA has found that trans fats are no longer generally regarded as safe and the agency is taking measures to eliminate them from the food supply.
The artificial sweetener sucralose (Splenda) was thought to be safer than other artificial sweeteners, up until recently. But research has found it to be a high risk ingredient with links to diabetes and leukemia.
Similar arguments are made against the use of high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, aspartame and even foods that have been genetically modified. Research points to the detrimental health effects, and some countries strictly regulate or even ban the ingredients.
So what about carrageenan? Try purchasing a nondairy milk without it. Or yogurt. Or processed meats. It can show up virtually anywhere in the processed food chain, used to bind ingredients—even organic ones. But is it safe?
Animal studies have repeatedly shown that food-grade carrageenan causes gastrointestinal inflammation and higher rates of intestinal lesions, ulcerations, and even malignant tumors.
Since 1969, dozens of studies of food-grade carrageenan have been published in peer-reviewed academic journals. Results from these scientifc experiments point to harmful effects from food-grade carrageenan in the diet.
Studies from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s link food-grade carrageenan to higher rates of digestive disease, including colon cancer, in laboratory animals.
In 2001, a review published in the official journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences questioned the safety of food-grade carrageenan, based on an examination of the extant scientific literature.
The unique chemical structure of carrageenan triggers an innate immune response in the body, which recognizes it as a dangerous invader. This immune response leads to inflammation. For individuals who consume carrageenan on a regular or daily basis, the inflammation will be prolonged and constant, which is a serious health concern since prolonged inflammation is a precursor to more serious disease.
In fact, the medical community has long recognized that inflammation is associated with more than 100 human diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and arteriosclerosis. Inflammation is also linked to cancer.
“Carrageenan exposure clearly causes inflammation; the amount of carrageenan in food products is sufficient to cause inflammation; and degraded carrageenan and food-grade carrageenan are both harmful,” says Dr. Joanne Tobacman, MD, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago. In other words, we simply don’t know if any amount of carrageenan can be considered safe.
“The rising incidence and prevalence of ulcerative colitis across the globe is correlated with the increased consumption of processed foods, including products containing carrageenan,” says Dr. Stephen Hanauer, MD, Chief, Section of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, and Joseph B. Kirsner, Professor of Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology, University of Chicago School of Medicine.
Many individuals experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms (ranging from mild “belly bloat,” to irritable bowel syndrome, to severe inflammatory bowel disease) have noticed that eliminating carrageenan from their diets leads to profound improvements in their gastrointestinal health.
Researchers continue to explore other ways in which carrageenan is harmful. Scientists have recently found that contact with carrageenan reduces the activity of certain beneficial enzymes in human cells. And a recent study exposing mice to carrageenan in drinking water showed impaired insulin action and profound glucose intolerance—precursors to diabetes.
As far back as 1981, Drs. Raphael Marcus and James Watt of the Department of Pathology, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom noted that the safety of carrageenan must be “seriously reconsidered, and, in view of the long-term effects, caution must be applied in the continued use of carrageenan.”
And what’s worse is that issues may not be immediately apparent. But the absence of noticeable gastrointestinal symptoms does not signify that an individual is unaffected by carrageenan.
Research shows carrageenan predictably causes inflammation. Low-grade inflammation of the intestines may go unnoticed; nevertheless, chronic low-grade inflammation in the body is profoundly unhealthy. Scientists are increasingly concerned about the negative effects of low-grade inflammation on overall health, especially as it often leads to more serious disease down the road.