Q: Can carrageenan cause intestinal disorders and even cancer, as I’ve read on the Internet?
A: The safety of this food additive is hotly debated. Derived from seaweed, carrageenan is used to improve the texture of many foods, including:
- ice cream
- cottage cheese
- soy milk
- salad dressing
- processed meat
- some infant formulas
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other health agencies around the world consider carrageenan safe, though some advise certain restrictions on its use.
A decade ago, however, a University of Iowa review of animal studies set off alarm bells. It linked carrageenan, particularly a “degraded” form that may be produced during food preparation and digestion, to gastrointestinal ulcerations and tumors in mice. Degraded carrageenan is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Several lab studies since then have shown that both food-grade and degraded carrageenan can cause inflammation and increased cell death in human colon cells.
Other scientists have disputed the research’s implication that people are at risk, pointing out that the animals in studies have very different intestinal systems than humans. They say there’s no evidence that carrageenan breaks down into a harmful form in people.
More human studies are needed. We don’t think it’s necessary to avoid carrageenan, but if you want to err on the side of caution, check the ingredients list. The additive is often found in processed foods that aren’t particularly healthful anyway, such as pudding and whipped cream. Alternative thickening agents that are considered safe include guar, locust bean and xanthan gums.
In 2007 the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives advised against the use of carrageenan in infant formula; it is now banned in infant formula in Europe.