Carrageenan is an emulsifier, or thickener, naturally derived from red seaweed. According to scientific research, carrageenan is safe to consume. It's also an approved ingredient for baby foods, which have strict standards for safety and health.
Natural. Made from seaweed. Used in baby formula.
On the surface, these qualities would usually be attached to foods that are considered healthy and safe. And yet, these are the exact qualities of carrageenan, an ingredient that's in the center of the "is it healthy?" food debate.
Carrageenan, also referred to as Irish Moss, is a naturally-sourced ingredient derived from red seaweed. It’s extracted from the seaweed and used as an emulsifier, thickener, and stabilizer in a wide variety of food products such as ice cream, baby formula, yogurt, chocolate milk, almond milk, and protein powders.
If you Google "Is carrageenan safe?" you'll be met with a variety of claims that would make almost anyone want to stay away from the seemingly harmless seaweed.
So what's going on? It's a game of evil twins. While carrageenan is safe, a close relative poses a threat and is commonly mistaken with the harmless seaweed.
What are the Side Effects of Carrageenan?
When it comes to safety of carrageenan, it's important to know that carrageenan comes in a few different forms, the most important distinction being between undegraded and degraded carrageenan. Each differs significantly in their chemical compounds and side effects. Food-grade carrageenan, which is processed with alkaline, is considered undegraded and safe for us to eat. Degraded carrageenan, or poligeenan, is processed with acid and carries significant health warnings determined by research found in animal testing and is not safe for our consumption.
From a safety perspective, carrageenan has a clean record. According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC), The FDA, , and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) carrageenan does not cause any disease (such as cancer) and is safe for human consumption.
And that's just the start of the evidence associated with the safety of food-grade carrageenan (we'll explain non-food grade in a moment).
An independent review panel put together by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, did an extensive review examining decades of research on carrageenan. Their findings:
- Carrageenan, when used at the levels it’s currently used in food to achieve the desired effects, is not hazardous to health.
- Carrageenan in infant formula is safe for both healthy children and children with special medical needs.
Even the most recent research looked at 3 common forms of food carrageenan in the exact dose used in food products.
The results: “In conclusion, CGN (carrageenan) was not absorbed, and was not cytotoxic. It did not induce oxidative stress, and did not induce pro-inflammatory proteins.”
The bottom line: there is no science to support the claim that carrageenan is dangerous, causes inflammation, or is linked to cancer. It’s all speculation based on animal experiments, which have yet to be replicated in humans. Plus, it has no nutritional value, so it doesn't add extra calories to your favorite foods.
So why are people concerned about this common food additive?
It’s a misunderstanding that confuses carrageenan with poligeenan, which is a dangerous toxin.
Why Carrageenan is Safe
We know that poligeenan is not safe for consumption. And some scientists fear that carrageenan can convert to poligeenan in your digestive system based on animal studies.
However, science shows it is physiologically impossible for carrageenan to convert to poligeenan in the human body.
In order to create poligeenan, you need a combination of heat and acid. To be more accurate, in order to convert into poligeenan, processed seaweed needs to experience temperatures in excess of 190°F (75° hotter than the highest survivable body temperature ever recorded) for a sustained amount of time, while also being subjected to acidity comparable to levels found in car batteries.
As you might imagine, the pH of the human stomach is not the same as a car battery. And your body temperature can't reach 190 degrees.
And all the fear-based carrageenan research has only focused on animal studies or on cells in Petri dishes. As of now, the results of studies showing that carrageenan is harmful to humans have never been replicated.
Based on all the research, there is no need to avoid carrageenan. Again, there's a reason why it's an improved ingredient for baby foods, which have some of the strictest standards for safety and health. But, if you’re still not convinced that it’s safe to eat, do what feels comfortable and use carrageenan-free products. You won't be missing out on any vital nutrients.