Carrageenan – is it as bad as they say?

Carrageenan – is it as bad as they say?

by Natalie L 19 Feb 2020

Whenever we look at a food label, our eyes are immediately attracted to the fat content, sugar level, protein level and caloric value. However, one important ingredient which most people tend to miss is carrageenan. Though not a well-known additive, carrageenan continues to be widely used by food and drug manufacturers today despite the huge backlash against it. Here are some important facts which you need to know about carrageenan: 


What is carrageenan?

Carrageenan is commonly found in non-fat milk, yoghurt and creamers. What these food items have in common is their intrinsically unstable texture, due to the low or lack of fat content in their natural forms. Without further processing, these food items cannot hold their texture and need to constantly be stirred. This is where carrageenan comes in. Carrageenan is a gel-like substance used during food processing, to thicken and stabilize the solutions. This gives your products a more consistent texture, one which consumers are used to. It is important to bear in mind that there are two types of carrageenan--the degraded and dietary-approved types. While degraded carrageenan has been found to be carcinogenic and a cause of inflammation, the dietary-approved type is generally safer for consumption. 


What is the backlash against carrageenan about?

Dietary-approved carrageenan has received much backlash due to its potential harmful effects on the human body. Here are some concerns regarding it:


1. Contamination with degraded carrageenan

While the two types of carrageenan are processed differently, their molecular weights are still relatively similar, raising the concern of contamination of dietary-approved carrageenan with its toxic counterpart. Thus, there is a risk that a portion of carrageenan used in food processing turn out to be carcinogenic and causes inflammatory bowel symptoms.  


2. Immunosuppressive

Some studies found carrageenan to have immunosuppressive properties, hampering our body's defence system against infection. This might cause affected people to become more susceptible to common infections or suffer more serious complications from these infections. 


3. Impaired glucose tolerance 

Researchers have also found that carrageenan might impact glucose tolerance by increasing insulin resistance in body tissues. Its pathogenesis is similar to that in diabetes mellitus (DM), thus causing DM-like symptoms like unfavourable weight-gain and hormonal imbalance.  


Is carrageenan really that bad?

While carrageenan does seem to have many potential adverse effects, it is still approved for use in the food and pharmaceutical industries by the FDA. What about the research findings? Well, the adverse effects found in research studies might not actually correlate to what happens in real life for two main reasons. Firstly, the quantity of the substance used in research studies is much higher than that used in food products. The minute amount found in food products are unlikely to hit the toxic dose and cause the corresponding effects. Another point to consdier is that the research studies were conducted on animals and not human beings. Due to differences in biology between us and animals, the toxic effects which carrageenan has in animals might not apply to us.


Overall, the fact that carrageenan is FDA-approved suggests that it is still safe for human consumption. However, if you are still concerned about the potential harmful effects of carrageenan, you might want to switch to carrageenan-free alternatives instead.