The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved the additive for use, but concerns about its safety remain.
However, the validity of these claims is hotly debated because the only supporting evidence comes from studies in cells and animals.
In this article, we take a closer look at the risks and uses of carrageenan.
Is carrageenan bad for you?
Manufacturers extract carrageenan from red seaweed.
Different forms of carrageenan have different uses and potential risks.
Food-grade carrageenan is extracted from red seaweed and processed with alkaline substances.
When carrageenan is processed with acid, it creates a substance called degraded carrageenan, or poligeenan, which carries significant health warnings.
Poligeenan is an inflammatory substance. Researchers often use it to test new anti-inflammatory drugs in the laboratory. Poligeenan is not approved as a food additive.
What does the research say?
Degraded carrageenan, or poligeenan, is not safe to eat. Research in animals indicates that it causes gut tumors and ulcers, and may even trigger colon cancer.
Because of the possible danger, fewer studies have investigated the potential effects in humans.
Findings like these have led the International Agency for Research in Cancer to list poligeenan as a possible human carcinogen.
This means that the agency has reviewed the evidence that poligeenan can cause cancer in animals and concluded that it may have the same effect in humans.
Some scientists are concerned that food-grade carrageenan is also dangerous. This is because various studies, dating back to the 1960s, show that the substance may degrade and become toxic when it mixes with stomach acid.
The medical community is unsure to what extent carrageenan degrades in the digestive system. This means that we do not know if any amount is toxic. It is important to note that no related studies have involved human participants.
Findings of a review from 2017 indicated that even non-degraded carrageenan can cause inflammation and bowel disorders, suggesting that this substance may contribute to ulcers and IBD.
However, authors of a 2018 review concluded that there is not enough evidence to draw conclusions about the exact health effects of carrageenan.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that eliminating carrageenan from the diet can provide relief from digestive problems, such as bloating and IBD. However, these reports are not the result of scientific research.
How is carrageenan used?
Toothpaste may contain carrageenan.
Carrageenan has a variety of uses.
Though it has no flavor or nutritional value, it is a useful thickening agent and stabilizer. Some manufacturers include it in products like chocolate milk, to stop the milk from separating.
It can also substitute for fat in non- or low-fat foods and dairy replacement products aimed at the vegan market.
Some manufacturers use carrageenan as a binder in processed deli meats. Others inject it into pre-cooked poultry to tenderize the meat and keep it juicy for longer.
Companies often use carrageenan as a vegan alternative to gelatin, in desserts, for example. It is also a common ingredient in canned pet food.
Non-food products, such as air freshener gels and toothpaste also frequently contain carrageenan.
The FDA requires manufacturers to state whether products contain carrageenan on labeling.
Possible dangers and side effects of carrageenan
There is some debate over whether the findings of animal- and cell-based studies can apply to people.
If they can, the possible side effects of consuming carrageenan include:
- irritable bowel syndrome and IBD
- glucose intolerance
- colon cancer
- food allergies
Foods that contain carrageenan
Because carrageenan has a variety of uses, it is included in a wide range of products.
The following foods commonly contain carrageenan:
- Dairy: whipping cream, chocolate milk, ice cream, sour cream, cottage cheese, and children's squeezable yogurt products
- Dairy alternatives: soy milk, almond milk, hemp milk, coconut milk, and soy puddings and other desserts
- Meats: sliced turkey, prepared chicken, and deli meats
- Prepared foods: canned soups and broths, microwavable dinners, and frozen pizzas
Some nutritional or diet drinks contain carrageenan, as do some supplements, including chewable vitamins.
Because it can be used as a gelatin alternative, some manufacturers use carrageenan in jelly-based products, including vegan jelly desserts.
Alternatives to carrageenan
Soy milk commonly contains carrageenan.
In the U.S., any products that contain carrageenan must list it as an ingredient. A person should be able to avoid carrageenan by checking labeling carefully.
Carrageenan's texture-enhancing qualities, for example, can be replicated using:
- locust bean gum
- gum arabic
- guar gum
- xanthan gum
When a drink that tends to separate, such as chocolate milk, does not contain a stabilizer, a person may need to shake the bottle. This does not affect the quality or safety of the product.
There has long been concern and debate over the safety of consuming carrageenan. This food additive is produced by mixing a seaweed extract with alkaline substances.
Scientists widely accept that degraded carrageenan, or poligeenan, can trigger cancer and other health issues. Poligeenan is made by mixing the same seaweed extract with acid. It is a powerful inflammatory agent used in laboratories.
Studies in animals indicate that some food-grade carrageenan can degrade, becoming poligeenan, when it is exposed to stomach acid.
These studies have not shown conclusively whether the amount of degraded carrageenan is dangerous. However, because of the potential risk, no researchers have conducted studies in humans.
In the U.S., the FDA have approved carrageenan for use as a food additive.
Some people report that eliminating carrageenan from the diet has helped relieve symptoms of stomach discomfort, such as bloating and IBD. However, no scientific research supports these claims.