Carra-what? The What, Why, and How on Carrageenan in Food

By: Lindsey Loving and Liz Sanders, MPH, RD Date: 4/1/14

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion in the media about carrageenan in food. With any food ingredient, it's important to look at the science behind the buzz.  Carrageenan (pronounced "care-uh-gee-nun") is a naturally-occurring ingredient that is extracted from red seaweed and used to improve the texture and palatability of many foods and beverages.

Carrageenan has been safely used in foods for centuries. Many commonly-consumed foods and beverages contain carrageenan, such as chocolate milk, ice cream and other dairy products, salad dressings, soy milk, infant formula, and some meat products.

How & why is carrageenan used?

Like many of us, carrageenan is a multi-tasking ingredient! It can serve a variety of functions in foods, including forming gels, thickening solutions, and stabilizing food products.

Why are these functions important, you might ask? Well, without a stabilizing or binding ingredient, many of our foods' ingredients would "separate" while they are waiting on the grocery store shelf to be purchased. That's not very appealing! In addition, thickening ingredients provide the (wait for it) thick and creamy consistency that we associate with many of our favorite foods. Without them, there would be a noticeable difference in the texture of foods.

But I've heard some concerns about its effects on health. Should I be concerned?

According to the science and credible authorities on food, there is no need to be concerned about this long-used ocean-dwelling ingredient. As an approved food additive, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has thoroughly evaluated the research on carrageenan and concluded that it is safe for use in foods and beverages. Carrageenan's safety has been demonstrated through several human and animal studies. These studies found no link between carrageenan consumption and various health conditions, including cancer and digestive and reproductive disorders.

The Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization (FAO)/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and other credible authorities, such as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), have also confirmed carrageenan's safety and that it is not cancer-causing.

What about inflammation of the digestive tract?

A few animal studies suggesting consumption of high amounts of carrageenan could lead to inflammation of the digestive tract are not a relevant basis for evaluating the safety of carrageenan in our diets for a couple of important reasons: 1) The studies used excessively high doses of carrageenan that not comparable to what someone would consume in a real world scenario, and 2) They were conducted using forms of carrageenan that are not used in foods or beverages.

At current levels, carrageenan is a highly effective way to increase the texture and palatability of foods, both safely and deliciously.

For more information on carrageenan in food, check out our new Q&A.