Enjoy Your Scoop With a Sprinkle of Science

ice-cream-ingredientsJuly may be “National Ice Cream Month,” but in my house, every month is Ice Cream Month! It is my family’s all-time favorite treat. I think it must be genetic. It is our “go-to” dessert every chance we get.

Concerns about adding extra sugar and fat to the diet keep some people from enjoying their ice cream. Combine those with some of the food ingredient fears I’ve been seeing on the Internet, and ice cream could (undeservedly) be placed off-limits. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t lose any sleep if some people choose not to eat ice cream. But I do get upset when I think that people are making food and nutrition decisions based on fear, not facts.

Recent research by Brian Wansink at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab studied food ingredient fears. They found that giving people more information can be effective in reducing food ingredient fears. So that’s what I’d like to do here.

Let’s take carrageenan, a natural stabilizing agent often used in ice cream to prevent whey separation. Carrageenan is found in seaweed. It’s used to improve the texture and palatability of many foods and beverages, including chocolate milk, ice cream, salad dressings and infant formula. Some Internet articles claim that carrageenan has adverse health effects such as cancer and digestive disorders. However, the research that supposedly supports that panic (see UPDATE below) has some limitations and flaws that need to be addressed, such as:

  • They used excessively high doses of carrageenan that are not comparable to what is typically consumed. Remember, all substances—even water! – have negative impacts when consumed at incredibly high, atypical levels.
  • The form of carrageenan studied is not even the same as the form used in foods and beverages.
  • These studies were conducted on animals, and their results aren’t directly applicable to human health.

Studies looking at effects of carrageenan on a variety of health conditions (including cancer, digestive health, reproductive health, etc.) have demonstrated that carrageen is safe to consume. The bottom line is: Research shows that carrageenan is safe.

As a dietitian and a mom, I would never feed my family something that I didn’t trust was safe. Honestly, I worry far more about foodborne illness and calorie balance than miscellaneous food ingredients. I encourage you to enjoy your ice cream during National Ice Cream Month – or any time, for that matter. As long as it is in moderation, of course!

UPDATE: 

A 2016 study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology assessed the effects of three common forms of carrageenan in human intestinal cell lines. While this study utilized cell lines as their model, animal and cell culture models are the foundation for the overwhelming majority of carrageenan research.

You may have heard or read about a study linking carrageenan to intestinal inflammation. The research on carrageenan is expansive; however, there are some large limitations to some of this research, such as the use of extremely high doses and lack of characterizing the quality and purity of carrageenan.  Unfortunately, these limitations have led to the publication of studies that may be unreliable and/or misinterpreted, and even more troubling, inaccurate conclusions on safety of carrageenan.

The findings from McKim Jr., et al, used carrageenan that was tested in advance for purity and found that carrageenan does not cross intestinal epithelial cell and does not exert toxicity. Additionally, these researchers found that carrageenan does not induce oxidative stress or induce inflammation.

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