Summer 2013/14 True Natural Health Magazine – Your Questions Answered
By Roger French


QUESTION:  Is carrageenan cancer causing? If so, why does the Sanitarium Health Food Co. put it in a lot of their products? 



My neat little book, Food Additives by Sue Treffers, states that this additive is used as a thickener, emulsifier and gelling agent. It has no nutritional value, and is used to improve the texture of ice cream, yoghurt, cottage cheese, soy milk, whipping cream, cream cheese, bakery products, cereals, salad dressings, sauces and snack foods. It is extracted from Irish Moss, a red seaweed that grows along the coast of Ireland near a village named Carragheen. It is a water-soluble fibre and is a vegetarian and vegan alternative to gelatin.

Sue Treffers states that “degraded carrageenan may be carcinogenic and associated with birth defects, intestinal ulcers and damage to the immune system.”

The authoritative natural therapist, Dr Andrew Weil, MD, reports that the Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Joanne K. Tobacman, MD, conducted studies that linked undegraded carrageenan – the form that is widely used in foods – with malignancies and other stomach problems.

(Degraded and undegraded carrageenan have slightly different molecular structures.)  

Dr Tobacman has published 18 peer-reviewed studies on carrageenan and is convinced that it is harmful to human health. She recommends not using it in foods.

She found that carrageenan in both its forms causes inflammation, and that from processed foods containing it, we can ingest enough to cause inflammation. Chronic inflammation is a root cause of many serious diseases.

She also found that when laboratory mice are exposed to low concentrations of carrageenan for 18 days, they develop glucose intolerance and impaired insulin action, both of which can lead to diabetes.

There are concerns that the amount of degraded carrageenan (poligeenan) in food-grade carrageenan may lead to health problems. Tests of food-grade carrageenan have found that every sample contained at least some degraded carrageenan. Further, carrageenan can degrade in the gastrointestinal tract.

On the other hand, some studies indicate that carrageenan safely passes through the intestinal tract without adverse effect when it is a dietary ingredient.

In the United States carrageenan has been used in food processing for more than seventy years. It is classified as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the US Food and Drug Administration. More cautious Europeans prohibit the use of carrageenan in infant formula.

In Australia, according to a Sanitarium nutritionist, the ANZFA (Australia New Zealand Food Authority) regards carrageenan as safe. Any additive that Sanitarium foods uses has been approved by ANZFA, so this is why the company is comfortable using carrageenan. If the ANZFA was to change its position on this, no doubt Sanitarium would reconsider its use. 

As you say, K. F., this thickener is in a lot of San food products. For example, Tender Fillets, Tender Schnitzels, Vegie Roast, Spicy Peperoni, some of the sausage range, Chickpea and Masala Curry (canned), Almond Milk, Up-and-Go beverages and some frozen So Good desserts.

The safety of carrageenan is a classic case of ‘who do you believe?’. With respected authorities saying it is safe while some researchers say it isn’t, we are left right up in the air.

Until there is further evidence, it might be wise to stick with moderation. Meaning, it would be wise to avoid regular, long-term consumption of foods containing carrageenan, especially by people with inflammatory bowel disease, but otherwise occasional moderate consumption may well be harmless.