The Truth behind Carageenan

Carrageenan is a natural polysaccharide (carbohydrate) extracted from red seaweed. It is referred to as a seaweed gelatin much like agar agar. Its name is derived from the Chondrus crispus species of seaweed known as Irish Moss or Carrrageen Moss in England, and as Carraigin in Ireland, where it has been used since 400 AD. The name Carraigin means 'moss of the rock' in Irish. It grows abundantly along the rocky coasts of North America and Europe.  In Ireland during the early 1800s carrageenan was extracted from Irish Moss and used as a gelatin and thickener, as well as a home remedy. A tea made from Irish moss is used as a tonic, being widely used in Irish folk medicine as a trusted cure for coughs and colds.

Today, Ireland is a major source of the world's supply and where this vegetable is steamed and eaten with potatoes or cabbage. Its most common use outside of Ireland is in the making of rennet-free gelatin (carrageen), preferred by vegetarians since true gelatin is an animal product.  Carrageenan is used as a thickening, emulsifying and stabilizing agent in ice cream, yogurt, custards, jellies, cream cheese, cottage cheese and other dairy products as well as chocolate products, pie fillings, salad dressings, soups, soymilk, and as a fat substitute in processed meats, and in toothpaste to mention just a few.

There are two types of carrageenan, undegraded (food-grade) and degraded (hydrolyzed with acid).  Undegraded carrageenan has been used on a huge scale in food production worldwide since the 1930s, and its safety has been assured by the FDA Gras status. The Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) gave carrageenan the highest ADI (Accepted Daily Intake) status of 'not specified'. Since it's considered non-toxic the JECFA deemed it unnecessary to express the ADI in numerical form. Chemically treated, degraded carrageenan however, is a known carcinogen (cancer causing agent) and is not used or permitted in food production, but is frequently used to experimentally induce intestinal inflammation in animal studies.

Umpqua Dairy Products would like to assure all that we only use the food grade, undegraded carrageenan in our products.  We hold documentation showing that absolutely no chemicals are used in producing our carrageenan and that it is the highest quality food grade, undegraded carrageenan. We use very small amounts of it to prevent separation of liquids, to improve performance, and for a smoother mouth feel.  The carrageenan used is extracted from a variety of red seaweeds. It is extracted using a multi-step process to avoid any degradation either by boiling the seaweed in water and freeze-drying it, or by precipitation with alcohol and then concentrating it by evaporation. 

In the October 2001 issue of 'Environmental Health Perspective' an article written by Dr. Joanne K. Tobacman, College of Medicine, University of Iowa, was published regarding carrageenan.  Dr. Tobacman's article was based on the evaluation of many food additives, including carrageenan, written by Dr. Erik Millstone. Dr. Ronald Walker, Professor of Food Science, Food Safety Group, School of Biological Sciences, University of Surrey in England, rebutted Dr. Millstone's statements.  According to Dr. Walker, "Dr. Millstones statement is toxicologically naive and does not display a level of expertise which would enable a meaningful critique. There were many factual inaccuracies as well as misinterpretations of the data." The following are Dr. Walker's comments on Dr. Millstone's carrageenan research.  "Millstone is correct in stating that degraded (low molecular weight) carrageenan is not used in food but then totally misrepresents the situation when he claims it produces similar problems to food grade carrageenan but is thought to produce them more rapidly. He cites the JECFA report of 1984 in support of this statement but the report says nothing of the sort. Firstly, the JECFA monograph makes it quite clear that the toxicological effects of concern, namely ulceration of the colon of some species, were caused by degraded carrageenan and not by food grade material. Further, there was adequate evidence that the extent of degradation of food grade material after ingestion was very small indeed and this was discounted by the JECFA as not toxicological significance. Studies on food grade material, including studies on primates given up to 1300mg/kg body weight, did not cause any adverse effects on the gastrointestinal tract." Dr. Walker further states, "Food grade carrageenan has been found not to be teratogenic or fetotoxic (cancer causing) in animal studies, and this is not a current concern. Food grade material was not a carcinogen to rats and mice fed 5% in the diet for life."

The safety of carrageenan for use in foods was confirmed at the fifty-seventh meeting of the Joint FAO/WHO in June 2001. The JECFA recommended an ADI of 'not specified', the most favorable ADI a food additive can get. The JECFA review was based on extensive studies, some of which were not addressed in the article that questioned the safety of carrageenan. The JECFA consists of an international panel of expert toxicologists that review data pertaining to food additives and contaminates. At the request of a meeting of the JECFA June 2001, Samuel Cohen M.D., Ph.D. (Chairman of the Department of Pathology/Microbiology from the Medical School University of Nebraska) and Dr. Nobuyuki Ito (Professor Emeritus from Nagoya City University Medical School, Japan) performed a literature review and prepared a response on the safety of carrageenan. In June 2001, the JECFA reviewed the response on the matter of carrageenan written by the above and removed the 'temporary' designation of ADI and designated carrageenan as a food 'not specified', ADI. This is the best classification from a toxicology perspective. It means that there is no numerical limit established on the consumption of food grade carrageenan when used in food at a level to achieve the desired technical or functional effect. The review by Dr. Cohen and Dr. Ito provides clarification and rebuttals to many of the allegations made by Dr. Tabacman's and Dr. Millstone's articles. Drs. Cohen and Ito are experts on cancer and provided a valuable, scientifically critical review of carrageenan, which was accepted by JECFA.

A seven and one-half year study conducted on monkeys fed carrageenan, at the Albany Medical College, Albany, N.Y. found no changes in hematology or clinical chemistry values, no changes in organ weight or organ-to-body ratios, no storage of carrageenan-like material in the liver or other organs, and no gross microscopic changes in tissue. This study and the JECFA position was further supported by the recent publication of a Japanese study (J. Toxico Pathol., 14(1), 37-43, 2001), that found carrageenan does not promote tumor growth.

It is the goal of Umpqua Dairy to provide the highest quality dairy products.  After reviewing all of the existing scientific literature, Umpqua Dairy is in agreement with the JECFA assessment of carrageenan. The literature indicates that food grade carrageenan is neither carcinogenic nor toxic, and it is safe for all uses and all ages in food. Please visit the following web sites to review scientific literature, the JECFA position, and to help you arrive at your own determination regarding the safety of carrageenan:

IPCS International Programme on Chemical Safety, World Health Organization, WHO Food Additives Series: 42  

Marinalg International, a world association representing the producers of hydrocolloids extracted from seaweeds and

Medical Update:

Professor Ronald Walker, witness statement and rebuttal of Dr. Erik Millstone, page 7, Carrageenan.