- 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
- Research suggests carrageenan is highly inflammatory, triggering an immune reaction that may cause inflammation in your gastrointestinal system and may be carcinogenic
- In December 2016, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) expert advisory board, voted to remove carrageenan from the organic ingredients list
- In April 2018, the USDA overruled NOSB’s advice and reapproved carrageenan for organic foods
By Dr. Mercola
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.”
Why Do Food Manufacturers Use Carrageenan?
Food manufacturers have a great incentive to add carrageenan to their products, as it’s an economical way to replace fat in foods. It’s also used as a stabilizing agent that helps prevent foods from separating so they can be consumed without first shaking or stirring them. Alternatives do exist, including guar gum and locust bean gum, as well as simply advising consumers to “shake well” before consuming.
“[T]he simplest alternative to carrageenan in products such as chocolate milk is to have the consumer shake the product right before use,” Cornucopia noted.8 In response to consumer demand, some organic food companies have already removed carrageenan from their products, but many others have not.
Additionally, many conventional food products contain this additive. You may find carrageenan in the following foods, according to The Cornucopia report, so be sure to read the ingredients list carefully (when used as a processing agent, carrageenan may be present in a food but not listed on the label, so contact the manufacturer to be sure):9
Dairy products, including whipping cream, chocolate milk, ice cream, sour cream, cottage cheese and squeeazble yogurt (typically marketed to children)
Meats, including sliced turkey and prepared chicken
Nutritional protein drinks and bars
Prepared foods, such as canned soup, broth, microwaveable dinners and frozen pizza
Supplements, including chewable vitamins
Watering Down Organic
When you see “organic” on a label, it’s necessary to do your due diligence to ensure the product is truly produced with the highest organic standards, as a number of factors can potentially “water down” the integrity of the label. For instance, the Organic Trade Association and the hydroponic lobby, led by the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, are seeking to rewrite organic rules to include hydroponics, which are plants grown in a liquid medium without soil.
However, USDA organic regulations require that your crop rotation plan maintains or improves soil organic matter. Since hydroponics do not involve the use of soil, they do not qualify for organic certification, yet hydroponic operators have been certified organic by USDA-accredited certification agencies, which is deceitful to the public. In November 2017, NOSB rejected the proposal to ban hydroponics and aquaponics in organic production, even though these growing methods do not involve soil.
Many organic pioneers are threatening to opt out of USDA organic certification as a result, and if stewardship of nutrient-rich soil is eliminated as a basic requirement of organics, an alternative add-on label may be developed. It’s important to be aware that hydroponics also use chemicals, which organic producers are barred from using. Worse, commercial hydroponic growers will rarely reveal the fertilizers they use.
Further, keep in mind that while growing food indoors does reduce the need for pesticides, it does not automatically mean hydroponic vegetables are pesticide-free. In addition, at least one study found hydroponically grown vegetables had lower levels of carotenoids such as beta-carotene and lutein than conventional vegetables.10
Organic dairy is another area where not all organic brands are created equal. While some are offering truly superior milk that comes from grass fed cows raised on pasture, others are passing off industrially produced milk as organic — and pocketing the increased profits while small family farms struggle to survive. In short, cows produce more milk, faster, when they’re fed grain in the barn, as opposed to grazing on grass on pasture.
Industrialized organic dairies are capitalizing on this by skimping on grazing time, raising thousands of cows in veritable CAFOs, yet still gaining the USDA organic label that suggests a superior product. As organic standards continue to be devalued, it’s now more important than ever to seek transparency from the food companies you support and choose those adhering to true organic standards.
How to Avoid Carrageenan and Choose Real Versus ‘Fake’ Organics
As for meat and dairy, I encourage you to look for the American Grassfed Association (AGA) logo, as it ensures the animals were born and raised on American family farms, fed only grass and forage from weaning until harvest, and raised on pasture without confinement to feedlots.11 You can further protect your family by consulting Cornucopia's organic dairy scorecard, which separates organic high-integrity dairy brands from what they call the "factory farm imposters."
The Cornucopia Institute's "Scrambled Eggs" report and organic egg scorecard are also important resources, which rank 136 egg producers according to 28 organic criteria. In the case of carrageenan, your best bet to avoid this additive in your food is to read ingredient labels diligently — and choose whole, nonprocessed foods as much as possible. The Cornucopia Institute has also created a shopping guide to avoiding organic foods with carrageenan, which can help you choose wisely.