Natural. Made from seaweed. Used in baby formula. 

On the surface, these qualities would usually be attached to foods that are considered healthy 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 is a naturally-sourced ingredient derived from red seaweed. It’s extracted by either alkali or used as an emulsifier, thickener, and stabilizer in a wide variety of food products such as ice cream, baby formula, yogurt, 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 twin. While carrageenan is safe, a close relative poses a threat and is commonly mistaken with the harmless seaweed. 

What are the Dangers of Carrageenan?

It's important to know that carrageenan that you find in food is not the same as carrageenan that you might find in the ocean.

From a safety perspective, carrageenan has a clean record. According to foodinsight.org, The FDA, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), 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 research, which has yet to be replicated in humans.

So why are people concerned?

It’s a misunderstanding that confuses carrageenan with poligeenan, which is a dangerous toxin.

Why Carrageenan is Not a Risk

We know that poligeenan is not safe for consumption. And some people fear that carrageenan can convert to poligeenan in your digestive system.

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 animals or on cells in Petri dishes. As of now, the results of studies showing that carrageenan is harmful to humans have never been replicated.

Should You Avoid Carrageenan?

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.