Carrageenan, a food additive extracted from red seaweed, is commonly added as a thickening agent to processed foods, particularly dairy products, certain deli meats and other prepared foods. Since it comes from seaweed, many people assume carrageenan is natural — perhaps even healthy — and along with conventional foods this additive is often found in “natural” and organic products.
The problem is that carrageenan is not nutritious, nor is it natural or certified organic. It’s a processed additive extracted from seaweed using alkali, and research suggests it’s highly inflammatory, triggering an immune reaction that may cause inflammation in your gastrointestinal system and related problems.1 As such, organic watchdog groups such as The Cornucopia Institute have called for it to be removed from the U.S. list of approved organic ingredients.
In December 2016, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) expert advisory board, voted to do just that. After hearing evidence on the potential health risks and the availability of alternative ingredients, NOSB voted to remove carrageenan from the organic ingredients list. Unfortunately, the vote is technically only a recommendation, and while the USDA has historically almost always sided with their expert panel, in April 2018 they did just the opposite.
USDA Overrules NOSB Advice, Keeps Carrageenan in Organics
“AMS [USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service] has reviewed NOSB's sunset review document and decided to renew all 17 substances, including carrageenan. AMS found sufficient evidence in public comments to the NOSB that carrageenan continues to be necessary for handling agricultural products because of the unavailability of wholly natural substitutes …
Carrageenan has specific uses in an array of agricultural products, and public comments reported that potential substitutes do not adequately replicate the functions of carrageenan across the broad scope of use.”
Yet, as noted by Mark A. Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, the decision flies in the face of the very reason NOSB was created. “This is the latest instance of the … administration siding with powerful agribusiness interests. They are running roughshod over the will of Congress that established the NOSB as a buffer to insulate organic regulations from corrupt corporate lobbyists.”3 Also noteworthy, the USDA not only ignored NOSB’s vote but also made their decision with no opportunity for public comment.
It’s only the second time in nearly 30 years that the USDA has gone against NOSB’s advice on whether or not to remove an ingredient from the organic list. The other time, which also occurred recently, involved conventionally produced dairy whey protein concentrate. Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst with advocacy group Consumers Union, told Food Business News that the move could have serious repercussions to the organic label:4
“Today’s decision by the USDA represents a troubling precedent that undermines the integrity of the organic label … Current law requires the USDA to base the National List of allowable ingredients for organic food on the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board, which are developed after extensive public engagement and stakeholder input. The USDA’s decision to ignore the NOSB’s recommendation raises serious concerns about the future of the organic label.”
Carrageenan Health Risks Revealed
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies degraded carrageenan as a possible human carcinogen. Degraded carrageenan, which is processed with acid instead of alkali (as the food-grade carrageenan is) is so inflammatory that it’s used in laboratory studies to induce inflammation in animals in order to test anti-inflammatory agents. While food-grade carrageenan is a different product, there’s concern that stomach acid could essentially turn food-grade carrageenan into potentially carcinogenic degraded carrageenan once inside the body.5
Further, exposure to even undegraded (i.e., food-grade) carrageenan has been linked with an increased occurrence of intestinal ulcerations and potentially cancer growths.6 In a 2016 report by the Cornucopia Institute, the health risks of carrageenan were further revealed, with a slew of studies raising serious concerns over carrageenan’s inflammatory properties. According to the report:7
“The unique chemical structure of carrageenan triggers an innate immune response in the body, recognizing 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, a serious health concern as a precursor to more serious diseases.
In fact, the medical community has long recognized that inflammation is associated with over 100 human diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis and arteriosclerosis. Inflammation is also linked to cancer.
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 the diet leads to profound improvements in their gastrointestinal health.
Researchers are exploring 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.”