1950-2000 (PDF format)

by Mariel Wolfson

March 14, 2008

            Carrageenan: it is just a name squeezed onto the packaging of countless products lining the shelves of our grocery and drug stores today. It is a major export of the Philippines and essential to the economic success of this Asian island nation, so far removed from the homes and thoughts of American consumers. In the language of food chemists, carrageenan is variably called an emulsifier, stabilizer, colloid, or gum. Many products that we now take for granted – especially soymilk, chocolate and other flavored milks, dairy products, infant formulas, and nutritional supplement beverages such as Ensure or Slimfast rely upon carrageenan for their uniform consistencies. They could not be made, packaged and stored for long periods of time without this ingredient. . . . based on the information available, it is inadvisable to use carrageenan or processed eucheuma seaweed in infant formulas.”[9] While in one sense, the Committee’s recent decision will have no immediate impact on carrageenan consumption among adults and children, its precautionary stance on infant formula could encourage skepticism and confusion among consumers: what is it about the safety of this substance that makes it potentially harmful to the human body? Is a health risk acceptable for everyone except infants? Dr. Joanne Tobacman, who has been studying the dangers of carrageenan consumption for over a decade, calls it a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and has suggested that companies avoid using carrageenan in their products and that consumers avoid ingesting it.[10] In 2006, Dr. Tobacman and three of her colleagues published results showing “that exposure of human intestinal epithelial cells to carrageenan triggers a distinct inflammatory pathway.”[11] She has also observed that “exposure to undegraded as well as to degraded carrageenan was associated with the occurrence of intestinal ulcerations and neoplasms.”[12] Finally, she believes that carrageenan warrants study as a possible factor in the development of breast cancer.[13]



[14] This obscure seaweed, formerly a common Irish cooking ingredient, has become not only an object of international trade and economics, but also an object of international scientific and medical controversy. It has become a “scientific object.” While it is probably safe to assume that the vast majority of American consumers are unaware of carrageenan’s history, its increasing ubiquity in our food supply, and its potential health consequences, there has for some time been a concerned and vocal minority of consumers, physicians, and scientists who urge caution. The best-selling author and high-profile doctor of integrative medicine Andrew Weil implicates carrageenan in both colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease; he advises everyone to avoid it. A casual internet search will produce innumerable indictments of carrageenan as a cause of ulcerative colitis (UC) and of gastrointestinal harm in general. Those writing these warnings frequently cite, as their main piece of evidence, carrageenan’s well-established role in the laboratory: it is used to create experimental models of UC and colon cancer in guinea pigs. This is a crucial piece of carrageenan’s “scientific biography:” in experimental settings, it causes a disease in guinea pigs that can be debilitating in humans. For many consumers, this fact alone is evidence enough that carrageenan is dangerous and unfit for human consumption. . . . .

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Kay’s Note:  Gum stabilizers, such as carrageenan, are added to the majority of processed foods and bottled goods on your grocer’s shelves. Be a label-reader to be healthier.