Carrageenan: Widespread Contamination
Carrageenan is one of those sneaky food additives that have recently come under close scrutiny, as they are commonly found lurking in the aisles of your local health food store. It is added as a thickening agent to healthy foods including almond milk and yogurt. Carrageenan is also used as a replacement in gluten-free foods as an alternative binding agent, explains Dr. Edward Group of the Global Healing Center.
A new report released by The Cornucopia Institute summarizes research on carrageenan, exposing the industry’s hidden data demonstrating that all food-grade carrageenan contains a carcinogenic contaminant—low molecular weight poligeenan.
Carrageenan, harvested from specific species of red seaweed, is a highly effective thickener/stabilizer found in processed foods including infant formula, plant-based beverages, deli meats, and some dairy products, including cream. The controversy over carrageenan has existed between food industry representatives and public health researchers for years, but it is now flaring up again over its use in organic food.
Inflammation, Cancer, Diabetes, Oh My
Cornucopia’s report, Carrageenan: New Studies Reinforce Link to Inflammation, Cancer, and Diabetes, will be formally released in Washington, on April 25, 2016, at the upcoming meeting of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board. The board will be debating whether to remove carrageenan from its list of approved materials for use in organic food.
Cornucopia, a farm policy research group, has made available the full set of data that was originally published online 10 years ago by the Marinalg Working Group. The data shows widespread contamination of food-grade carrageenan with poligeenan, both of which cause chronic and acute intestinal inflammation and even cause cancer.
Marinalg, the trade-lobby group representing carrageenan manufactures, had posted the illuminating research on its website, but later removed it since it has aggressively lobbied food safety regulators for continued approval of the use of carrageenan in food. Cargill by the way is also a supplier of carrageenan for the food industry.
“This type of subterfuge by powerful agribusiness might have been successful at the FDA, or before European regulators, but we are optimistic that, carrying out the mandate of the U.S. Congress, the National Organic Standards Board will weigh the current evidence and protect organic consumers by banning this dangerous material,” stated Mark Kastel, Cornucopia co-director.
The “smoking gun” data was originally published to meet the demands of a 2005 European Commission recommendation that no more than five percent of food-grade carrageenan fractions should have a molecular weight below 50 kD due to the well-known health concerns associated with low molecular weight carrageenan.
Carrageenan producers have long claimed that food-grade carrageenan and poligeenan (a known carcinogen) are two distinctly different substances. The industry still denies that food-grade carrageenan contains poligeenan, however, publicly funded scientific research has long found otherwise.
“Now, the industry’s own data has revealed that all 12 food-grade carrageenan samples tested did in fact contain poligeenan in varying quantities up to 25 percent,” said Linley Dixon, PhD, Cornucopia’s Senior Staff Scientist.
Carrageenan is such an efficient inflammatory agent and carcinogen, it is widely used to study the molecular signals involved in cancer and anti-inflammatory drugs.
Publicly-funded researchers have published dozens of studies on the harmful health effects of consuming food-grade carrageenan, but the industry has aggressively responded by funding its own studies, many of which Cornucopia critiques in the new report.
Dr. Dixon stated, “Marinalg’s cover-up of this scientific data demonstrates how damaging the results could be to the carrageenan industry.”
University of Illinois researcher, Joanne Tobacman, M.D., who has published widely on the subject said, “The carrageenan industry has tried for decades to retain using carrageenan in food products because of its biological reactivity with ingredients. This same biological reactivity is what makes carrageenan harmful. Food-grade carrageenan inevitably contains some lower molecular weight forms naturally.”
Dr. Tobacman continued, “Additional lower molecular weight forms are produced by processing, heat, acid, intestinal bacteria, and chewing.”
Research has shown that besides the initial contamination in food-grade carrageenan, stomach acid in the human digestive tract can convert a percentage of carrageenan that may otherwise be safe into the most dangerous, carcinogenic form.
Tobacman’s findings, along with others in her field, demonstrate the molecular mechanism by which food-grade carrageenan causes inflammation, cancer, insulin resistance, and an immunogenic response in humans.
Cornucopia’s report details many flaws in some of the industry-funded studies used by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) as justification for the continued use of carrageenan in food. In addition, the report provides a rebuttal to the industry’s critique of publicly funded research (the majority of US studies were funded by the National Institute of Health).
“In the past, a successful tactic by many financial interest groups, including the tobacco and fracking lobby, has been to attempt to discredit reputable, publicly funded research, and to fund their own flawed studies to create the impression that there is scientific debate,” Dr. Dixon stated. “The carrageenan industry has used both of these tactics and, to top it off, hidden its own counterproductive results as well.”
Cornucopia’s Kastel added, “If these scientists were accountants working for a corporation they might be accused of ‘cooking the books’ due to their protocols and the selective data they chose to discuss in the publication of these studies.”
Bloating Belly Be Gone
Through experimentation, many people have discovered a correlation between carrageenan in their diets and a myriad of symptoms such as diarrhea/irritable bowel syndrome, and more serious inflammatory bowel disease and colitis. For many, when carrageenan is removed from the diet; symptoms quickly dissipate.
As part of its investigation over the last three years, The Cornucopia Institute has received 1,337 questionnaire responses from individuals reporting they had suffered adverse health effects after consuming carrageenan. One respondent, Charlene Beebe of Townsend, Montana stated, “My husband has been ill with ulcerative colitis for 20 years, and has been in remission since we removed carrageenan. Unknowingly, I began buying cream with carrageenan in it for a few weeks . . . and he started bleeding and had a terrible gut ache for weeks now. I since found out the cream contains carrageenan and about fell through the floor. I am furious!”
The Cornucopia Institute’s report is being released as the National Organic Standards Board reviews carrageenan for continued use in organic foods. In addition to health concerns, the report points out that carrageenan is not “essential.”
“For every organic product containing carrageenan, an organic alternative exists, produced by one or more competitors,” said Kastel. “That has allowed the marketplace to prove, conclusively, that carrageenan does not meet the legal threshold as an ingredient in organic food based on a lack of essentiality.”
Leading organic brands, like the farmer-owned cooperative Organic Valley, have removed carrageenan from many of their products in response to customer concerns. “The co-op has recognized the informed concerns of organic shoppers by labeling their sliced deli meats as containing ‘no binders, fillers or carrageenan’.”
In addition to Organic Valley, there are several other natural foods companies that refuse to use carrageenans. Other common organic dairy and dairy substitute brands without this ingredient include: Nancy’s and Wallaby Organics. Interestingly, many organic brands include carrageenans in some of their products while leaving it out of others (e.g. Natural by Nature produces buttermilk void of carrageenans, yet includes it in their chocolate milk). Unfortunately, your safest bet is to carefully inspect the food labels for now. Cornucopia has produced a helpful shopping guide to save time. If you really want to take the guess work out completely; stick with hemp milk. According to Cornucopia, no organic hemp milk contains carrageenan.
Even some toothpaste brands have shunned the carcinogen.
“When the CEO of the iconic Dr. Bronner’s brand became aware of the research on carrageenan, their CEO, David Bronner, researched the alternatives and found that xanthan gum performed just as well in their toothpaste,” Kastel said.
Dr. Bronner’s, known for its line of soaps along with other body care and food products, is a prominent leader in the fight to maintain organic standards and advocate for GMO labeling. Interestingly, Dr. Bronner’s soap has never contained carrageenans. If anyone recalls that quirky interview with Dr. Bronner’s grandson, Ralph Bronner on NPR — we may have been better off following his utilitarian advice and brushing our teeth with their liquid soap as he oft suggested.
Like other regulatory bodies, the carrageenan industry is aggressively lobbying the NOSB, urging the board to retain the ingredient in organic food. However, efforts by the industry to cover up the harmful effects of carrageenan are being fully challenged setting the stage for a showdown in Washington, DC on April 25, 2016, where public interest groups and organic consumers, widely known for their passion and discernment, are likely to make their voices heard as well.
Cornucopia’s Kastel concludes, “We commend organic companies that operate under the ‘Precautionary Principle’ and strongly encourage members of the NOSB to protect organic consumers and their children as well.
The Cornucopia Institute is chartered as a tax-exempt public charity focusing on research and education. Its Organic Integrity Project aims to empower organic producers, consumers, and wholesale buyers so they can make discerning marketplace decisions protecting the credibility of the organic food and farming movement and the value it delivers to society.
While the lobbying continues, an alternative solution is to make your own hemp milk. HoneyColony offers Nutiva Organic Hemp Protein, chock-full of mineral and protein and completely void of carageenans. Simply blend with clean filtered water and add your choice of sweeteners (fruits, nuts, maple syrup…) No label investigation involved!