Some ingredients are like driving through yellow lights – it's best to avoid them in excess, but no one can prove their safety unequivocally. Driving through a yellow light may or may not result in an injury, but slamming on your breaks to avoid the yellow light can be dangerous too. With yellow lights and food additives, safety depends on a multitude of factors, not all of them known.
As I reviewed the food science behind the items a certain company is removing from their food, I was struck by the reputation of certain items on the list. Some ingredients should be reconsidered because they were deemed safe so long ago, their science never carefully evaluated. Other ingredients are probably best removed because advanced science came up with better alternatives. And then there are some ingredients that acquired a stigma for no apparent reason. Maybe the name didn’t look familiar or was hard to pronounce. Maybe it was being confused with another additive. Maybe a self-appointed internet watchdog made uninformed claims about its safety. Like rumors in high school, ingredient stigmas make me wonder, how did this claim get started? Is it personal or just a misunderstanding? How did this rumor spread so fast? Is there a grain of truth behind it, and how can the subject of the rumor possibly clarify or dispel the rumor?
Carrageenan is one such additive with a questionable reputation. With the recent ruling by the FAO/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) on carrageenan, it's the perfect time to review carrageenan’s purpose, additive alternatives and safety.
Carrageenan and Poligeenan
Prior to 1988, poligeenan was referred to as "degraded carrageenan" because it had no distinctive name. In 1988, poligeenan was awarded its own distinctive name by the US Adopted Names council (a group sponsored by the American Medical Association, the US Pharmacopeial Convention, and the American Pharmaceutical Association). Despite the new moniker, poligeenan is still referred to as "degraded carrageenan.”
The process to make poligeenan is dramatically different than the process to make carrageenan: making poligeenan requires an acid bath (think battery acid) at 190 degrees F (double the human body temperature). It's impossible for the human body to convert carrageenan to poligeenan, and no manufacturer would forgo the easy, minimal extraction process of making carrageenan and try to make poligeenan instead. It's true that poligeenan is considered a carcinogen, but it is incorrect that carrageenan turns into poligeenan during processing or during digestion in the body.
- Carrageenan, also known as Irish moss or Chondrus crispus, is soluble fiber extracted from red seaweed.
- In the early 1800s, carrageenan was used in Ireland to treat respiratory ailments. In 1940, a Chicago-based dairy company started using carrageenan to keep chocolate in their chocolate milk from settling to the bottom. In other words, carrageenan was used as a thickener and homogenizer, to keep the chocolate milk homogeneous.
- Nowadays, carrageenan improves the texture of products such as cottage cheese, jam/jelly, chocolate pudding, and infant formula.
Comparison to Alternative Additives
Carrageenan is natural and minimally processed; just take red seaweed and boil it, rinse it, then run it through a coffee filter or stick it in a blender and (Tah-Dah!), red seaweed extract. Carrageenan alternatives include gelatin, flour, cornstarch, tapioca, and gums like agar and xanthan. The three biggest advantages to carrageenan are as follows:
- It requires no fresh water or arable land to cultivate,
- It's suitable for vegan and vegetarian diets (unlike gelatin), and
- Its processing is much simpler than the processing of flours, starches and gums.
Addressing Safety Concerns
Alphabet Soup and Baby Food
The elderly, infantile, and immunocompromised are a special group of consumers that require more safety precautions than the average consumer. So when a scientific body rules something is safe for this special group, it usually draws attention.
In June 2015, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) released its full technical report on carrageenan safety in infant formula. The committee concluded that, "use of carrageenan in infant formula or formula for special medical purposes at concentrations up to 1000 mg/L is not of concern."
The committee also noted, "These new studies [on the safety of carrageenan for human infant exposure] allay the earlier concerns that carrageenan, which is unlikely to be absorbed, may have a direct effect on the immature gut."
The JECFA's ruling carries the weight of the United Nations, but it's not the only safety approval on carrageenan: The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) classify carrageenan as non-carcinogenic. The US FDA considers carrageenan an approved food additive, even for use in organic foods. The Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) has classified carrageenan as GRAS ("Generally Recognized As Safe").
Notably, the SCOGS includes the following disclaimer:
"While no evidence in the available information on undegraded carrageenan demonstrates a hazard to the public when it is used at levels that are now current and in the manner now practiced, uncertainties exist requiring that additional studies should be conducted."
These "additional studies" now complete and ruled upon by the great authority of the FAO/WHO JECFA, this SCOGS disclaimer is likely to change.
What we have here is a failure to communicate. The public outcries to remove carrageenan in food over safety concerns are misguided, due to the confusion of poligeenan and carrageenan. Poligeenan is not carrageenan, and neither the human body nor the gentle processing of carrageenan can turn one into the other. The claim that carrageenan causes gastrointestinal distress has been debunked by one of the most credible, unbiased scientific committees in the world. So now it's up to you, the consumer. If you had to pick sides, who would you believe? When you approach that yellow light, in this particular case, rest assured the coast is totally clear.
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