Questions about Carrageenan?
Maine (Ingredient Solutions) — Last month, activist group The
Cornucopia Institute formally requested that the FDA remove common food
additive carrgeenan from the food supply, arguing that the additive was
unsafe for human consumption.
Solutions, Inc. has released the following information in response to
consumer concern over the food additive carrageenan.
What is carrageenan?
Carrageenan is a naturally-occurring seaweed extract. It is widely used
in foods and non-foods to improve texture and stability. Common uses
include meat and poultry, dairy products, canned pet food, cosmetics and
Why the controversy?
Self-appointed consumer watchdogs have produced numerous web pages
filled with words condemning carrageenan as an unsafe food additive for
human consumption. However, in the more than 70 years of carrageenan
being used in processed foods, not a single substantiated claim of an
acute or chronic disease has been reported as arising from carrageenan
consumption. On a more science-based footing, food regulatory agencies
in the U.S., the EU, and in the UN’s Food and Agriculture
Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) repeatedly review and
continue to approve carrageenan as a safe food additive.
What has led up to this misrepresentation of the safety of an important
food stabilizer, gelling agent and thickener?
It clearly has to be attributed to the research of Dr. Joanne Tobacman,
an Associate Professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She and
a group of molecular biologists have accused carrageenan of being a
potential inflammatory agent as a conclusion from laboratory experiments
with cells of the digestive tract. It requires a lot of unproven
assumptions to even suggest that consumption of carrageenan in the human
diet causes inflammatory diseases of the digestive tract. The
objectivity of the Chicago research is also flawed by the fact that Dr.
Tobacman has tried to have carrageenan declared an unsafe food additive
on weak technical arguments that she broadcast widely a decade before
the University of Chicago research began.
What brings poligeenan into a discussion of carrageenan?
Poligeenan (“degraded carrageenan” in pre-1988 scientific and
regulatory publications) is a possible carcinogen to humans; carrageenan
is not. The only relationship between carrageenan and poligeenan is that
the former is the starting material to make the latter. Poligeenan is
not a component of carrageenan and cannot be produced in the digestive
tract from carrageenan-containing foods.
What are the differences between poligeenan and carrageenan?
The production process for poligeenan requires treating carrageenan with
strong acid at high temp (about that of boiling water) for six hours or
more. These severe processing conditions convert the long chains of
carrageenan to much shorter ones: ten to one hundred times shorter. In
scientific terms the molecular weight of poligeenan is 10,000 to 20,000,
whereas that of carrageenan is 200,000 to 800,000. Concern has been
raised about the amount of material in carrageenan with molecular weight
less than 50,000. The actual amount (well under 1 percent) cannot even
be detected accurately with current technology. Certainly it presents no
threat to human health.
What is the importance of these molecular weight differences?
Poligeenan contains a fraction of material low enough in molecular
weight that it can penetrate the walls of the digestive tract and enter
the blood stream. The molecular weight of carrageenan is high enough
that this penetration is impossible. Animal feeding studies starting in
the 1960s have demonstrated that once the low molecular weight fraction
of poligeenan enters the blood stream in large enough amounts,
pre-cancerous lesions begin to form. These lesions are not observed in
animals fed with a food containing carrageenan.
Does carrageenan get absorbed in the digestive track?
Carrageenan passes through the digestive system intact, much like food
fiber. In fact, carrageenan is a combination of soluble and insoluble
nutritional fiber, though its use level in foods is so low as not to be
a significant source of fiber in the diet.
June 11, 2008, Dr. Joanne Tobacman petitioned the FDA to revoke the
current regulations permitting use of carrageenan as a food additive. On
June 11, 2012 the FDA denied her petition, categorically addressing and
ultimately dismissing all of her claims; their rebuttal supported by the
results of several in-depth, scientific studies. If you would like to
read the full petition and FDA response, they can be accessed at http://www.regulations.gov/#!searchResults;rpp=25;po=0;s=FDA-2008-P-0347