Carrageenan is a food additive that helps particularly organic foods to gel, thicken, and stabilize. It’s extracted from Irish moss, a seaweed, and it has been used for its purpose for hundreds of years. But our consumption now is dramatically higher than ever before, of course, due to widespread manufacturing.
You’d think that an extract of seaweed would be safe—it’s natural, right? Unfortunately, there are quite a few concerning studies indicating associations with the following:
- Insulin resistance and impaired glucose tolerance.. This study is done in animal models, but it implies large amounts of carrageenan may also encourage diabetes in humans.
- Induces colitis (inflammation of the colon). This study also shows that carrageenan disrupts gut flora.
- Causes intestinal inflammation in general. This may include IBS or IBD (Irritable Bowel Disease).
- Is associated with bowel cancers.
As you might imagine, there’s a debate raging as to whether or not carrageenan should be banned. Last year, the National Organic Standards Board voted that it should be removed from the list of foods allowed in organic foods. They received pushback particularly from manufacturers of organic dairy products, who argued that the data was not compelling enough to ban the usage of carrageenan, and that nothing else worked as well. Its elimination from their products would therefore cause consumers to choose better textured non-organic foods instead, thus increasing exposure to many other objectionable ingredients. (In other words, they argue, it’s a case of the perfect becoming the enemy of the good.)
A final decision should come down the pipeline next month sometime (Nov 2017) as to whether carrageenan can or cannot stay in organic food formulations.
In the meantime, I’d err on the safe side: read your labels, and favor those that do not contain carrageenan whenever possible.