Carrageenan: The Natural Food Additive for the Nutritional Industry

by Cassandra R. December 14, 2015

As a food additive, carrageenan is approved by governmental bodies such as the FDA and WHO, for their role in food production for cheese, ice cream and other processed foods, including dietary supplements.The carrageenan ingredient is a natural food additive that has been routinely used in a wide variety of consumer products. In food and beverages, it is utilized as a stabilizing agent and its market sales were valued at $640 million worldwide back in 2012 according to a report by CyberColloids. Yet, despite its widespread presence in manufacturing and production, there has been some upheaval and concerns over carrageenan's safety and how its nutritional makeup might affect humans who regularly consume products that contain it. The contradictory statements between scientific studies and common perceptions have portrayed carrageenan in a bad light, with many opting for its removal and linking it as the cause of digestive issues. Separating myth from fact, however, is vital to uncovering just what carrageenan does—and has done—for many decades in our food supply, and what it can beneficially do for us in the future.

What Is Carrageenan?

Common in products such as cheese, ice-cream, non-dairy milk, and other processed foods, carrageenan is a soluble fiber that is extracted from red seaweed. Its physical structure allows it to be used as a thickener and stabilizer, providing food products better texture and improved palatability, as well as extending their shelf life to prevent additional food waste. It also has the ability to form gels, replacing animal-based products in soft gelatin capsules for pharmaceutical and nutraceutical supplements. This versatile product is present in non-consumable items as well, including cosmetics and lotions.

Carrageenan is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a safe food additive for public consumption. Other regulatory bodies have also affirmed carrageenan's safety, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). A recent review done on the ingredient in July 2014, conducted by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) concluded that carrageenan's use as a stabilizing agent in infant formula is perfectly safe.

There is also evidence of carrageenan as being a viable form of sustainable farming. Many small family farms around the world in countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia harvest carrageenan by hand. Done in a process that is friendly to the environment, the harvesting of carrageenan has been vital in stemming global hunger issues, allowing villages to stabilize and preserve their food items, as well as earn a living that will extend into several generations and sustain coastal communities. Seaweed farming, in particular, also helps remove harmful nitrogen from the water during harvesting, and needs no fresh water or arable land.

Carrageenan and Poligeenan; a Major Difference

Red seaweed is sustainably harvested from the ocean and goes through an alkali and water filtration method, leaving the carrageenan ingredient behind.With all the positive attributes that carrageenan exudes, how has this ingredient gotten such a negative portrayal among food safety activists and concerned, well-meaning consumers?

Several independent studies performed on carrageenan have created some confusion over its safety. These discrepancies stem from the type of carrageenan used and how it was administered in such experiments. One argument is that carrageenan is a carcinogen that can inflame the digestive tract, causing ulcerations in the colon. These findings were determined by animal studies.

The vital flaw in such arguments is the assumption that carrageenan has carcinogenic properties in the first place. The carrageenan used in food products is typically known as "food-grade" carrageenan, an acceptable form of carrageenan that does not irritate the digestive tract and poses no significant health risk. The confusion, then, is situated on poligeenan. Improperly known as "degraded carrageenan", poligeenan is distinct from carrageenan in both chemical structure and the way it is manufactured. The only link between the two is that carrageenan is the starting material to create poligeenan.

Poligeenan, unlike carrageenan, is carcinogenic and used in medical imaging applications. To create poligeenan, carrageenan must be processed through strong acids over time, rendering it unsuitable for consumption. Food-grade carrageenan uses a simple water or alkaline filtration method. Detractors have argued that carrageenan can degrade within the body the same way during digestion, but the temperature and pH levels necessary to create poligeenan simply do not exist within the human digestive tract, with temperature levels needing to be twice as much as normal body temperature. Previous animal studies that denounced carrageenan use this "degraded" form at levels that are not replicable with routine consumption of products containing carrageenan. Carrageenan is also not a carcinogen, with proper studies1,2,3 demonstrating its safety within the human body, causing no gastrointestinal inflammation. This confusion over carrageenan's safety is one that can be remedied, but it is still very easy to misconstrue. Though poligeenan comes from carrageenan, the manufacturing process required to change its structure is not used for food applications, nor can it be recreated within the human digestive tract. Carrageenan's safety has been determined by numerous studies that utilize proper methodologies and has been approved by the FDA.

Carrageenan's Role in Dietary Supplements

Since the early 1930s, carrageenan has been a staple ingredient of many household items, showing no adverse effects. In products such as cheeses, chocolate, lunch meats, and jellies, carrageenan helps create creamier textures, keeps items fresh and stabilized, and suspends other ingredients to keep them from separating. Yet, its flexibility doesn't stop there; the fact that carrageenan can create a gel-like consistency that mimics animal gelatin—but without the use of animal byproducts—has made carrageenan a dependable ingredient for a number of nutritional supplement manufacturers. Due to carrageenan's nature as a renewable resource, these supplements have a lower carbon footprint than other gelatin-based softgels.

Carrageenan vegetarian softgels are able to supplement several formulations for nutrition, including coconut oil, biotin, CLA, and CoQ10.Recent forays into vegetarian softgel production have started utilizing blends with small amounts of carrageenan to create vegetarian/vegan-compliant softgels that provide the superior bioavailability of standard softgels without using components from animals. As carrageenan is composed of several polysaccharide chains, the different variations in utilizing either the iota or kappa chains within its structure can be used to create the gelatin for softgels. This strong material mimics animal gelatin and has even shown some significant advantages over traditional softgels, such as better thermal stability and resistance against humidity to avoid clumping. Carrageenan is also compliant for a number of claims, including vegan, non-GMO (due to its sourcing), halal, and kosher, while being able to work well with numerous oil and paste formulas. As the market is veering more and more into the vegetarian sphere, carrageenan's role in gelatin supplements is greatly expanding, replacing animal-sourced gelatin with a vegetable-based alternative.

Carrageenan: The Safest Choice

As a driving force in the food additive industry, carrageenan still remains a viable choice for replacing synthetic and animal-based products. Misguided conceptions on its safety do not invalidate the numerous studies done that verify its suitability for public consumption. Carrageenan has proven to be one of the most effective choices as a gel or gelling ingredient when it comes to food palatability and vegetarian softgel manufacturing, and it can be harvested in one of the most environmentally friendly, sustainable methods of farming. Educating consumers on carrageenan's efficacy, and what it can do for a wide and varied demographic of vegetarian, halal, and non-GMO groups can help dispel the foggy myth surrounding carrageenan's safety and improve progress over what more this additive can do for production.

1 McKim, James M. "Food additive carrageenan: Part I: A critical review of carrageenan in vitro studies, potential pitfalls, and implications for human health and safety." Critical Reviews in Toxicology 44, no. 3 (March 2014): 211–43.
2 Weiner, Myra L. "Food additive carrageenan: Part II: A critical review of carrageenan in vivo safety studies." Critical Reviews in Toxicology 44, no. 3 (March 2014): 244–69.
3 Cohen, Samuel M. and Noboyuki Ito. "A Critical Review of the Toxicological Effects of Carrageenan and Processed Eucheuma Seaweed on the Gastrointestinal Tract." Critical Reviews in Toxicology 32, no. 5 (September 2002): 413–44.

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