Your Facebook questions answered: Is carrageenan safe?


“I’d like your thoughts on if carrageenan is safe. My understanding is that it has been shown to be harmful in studies on animals and in very high concentrations, but hasn’t been shown to be harmful in more reasonable amounts in adults. Thinking about adding it to home-made ice cream.…/cooking-with-syllables…/”, says Enlightened Eater Facebook fan, Darryl Kacher.

Darryl,  the food additive carrageenan is certainly a hot topic. Carrageenan, which comes from red algae or seaweed,  is used as a binder or as a thickening or stabilizing agent in many foods. While you may think of it for desserts (as in the example provided on the website you mention)  in products such  as ice cream and sorbets, it’s found in a wide assortment of foods like  chocolate, almond and coconut milk, salad dressings and even tofu.    If you look on the internet for safety information, you will definitely see some strong opinions.

Generally when I research issues of safety of various additives or other substances added to food, I will look at the scientific literature through a search on a site called PubMed. But as I am not a toxicologist and at the same time, the amount of research can be overwhelming, I have a few reputable sources that I depend on for an analysis of the research.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is one such site. Their Chemical Cuisine report provides a great summary of the research findings and then provides direction. They divide additives into certain categories: Safe; Caution (may pose a risk and needs to be better tested. Try to avoid.); Cut Back (not toxic, but large amounts may be unsafe or promote bad nutrition); Certain People Should Avoid (may trigger an acute, allergic reaction, intolerance, or other problems) and Avoid (unsafe in amounts consumed or is very poorly tested and not worth any risk).

CSPI has put carrageenan in the Caution category. While they state the additive causes harm in animals,  the  amounts used in food are too small to be a problem for most people. But they point to a World Health Organization (WHO) committee which states there may be issues for those with gastrointestinal disease. This committee, along with the FDA in the U.S, has concluded, though, that food-grade carrageenan is not a cancer risk.

But here’s where things get dicey. Another group at WHO states  degraded carrageenan (which is found in food-grade carrageenan)  could “possibly carcinogenic in humans.”.

So what’s the bottom line? My sense is that if you are eating mainly a variety of whole foods and include some processed foods which contain carrageenan and you do not suffer from any gastrointestinal problems, then you’re likely not consuming too much  of the additive. But as far as adding at home to duplicate the textures of commercial products such as ice cream gelato or other desserts, I would  definitely skip it. Your homemade frozen desserts might need to be softened or even whipped up in the food processor  before serving if they’ve been in the freezer for any length of time.

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Categories: Food Safety, Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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2 Comments on “Your Facebook questions answered: Is carrageenan safe?”

    • June 8, 2015 at 2:21 pm #

      Thanks for sending this link, Rivka! It’s great to have the background presented in this way.

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