Chondrus crispus, commonly known as carrageenan, took center stage in nutrition and health debates in 2016. Also known as Irish moss, the additive is processed from red edible seaweeds. The food industry started using carrageenan widely back in the 1990s as a thickening or gelling agent to improve the overall texture of processed foods, including ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, almond and soy milk. Think “emulsifier” and “stabilizer.”
As a food agent, carrageenan has little nutritional value, despite its origins as a nutritious additive when used in raw form. It’s true that carrageenan is free of gluten and animal fats, and is often used in halal and kosher diets. However, as an additive, numerous reports show that carrageenan complicates the digestive process with a host of issues, including inflammatory bowel syndrome, intestinal ulcers and tumor growths. How exactly it does this is complicated (as is anything having to do with chemistry and biology), but still worthy of explanation.
The Irish moss that is used to create carrageenan is not really a moss at all, but a type of red seaweed that, in its raw form, has been used for centuries in Ireland as a nutritious sea vegetable added to soups or broths. Seaweeds assumed a critical nutritional role during the Irish famine in the nineteenth century, as a plentiful and readily abundant source of sustenance during the historic food shortage.
Thus, Irish moss has an intriguing history. But whenever the chemistry club toys with nature’s DNA in the food supply chain, it’s probably time to take a second glance at just what modifications are being imposed on our foods.
Early in 2016, the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) revealed that it had originally approved carrageenan based on false information provided by food manufacturers, lobbyists and corporate ‘scientists.’ Based on mounting evidence about carrageenan’s harmful effects as a food additive, the NOSB voted in November 2016 to remove carrageenan from The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances that can be used in organic food, citing that carrageenan does not meet the criteria defined in the Organic Foods Production Act.
It is intriguing to note here just how many well-known organic food manufacturers were adding carrageenan to their product line, which was readily exposed while manufacturers were trying to make a case for keeping carrageenan in organic yogurt and soy milk—at least until consumer demand to remove the additives grew overwhelming. These producers included Stonyfield, Organic Valley, and Hain Celestial, among others, all of whom have since removed carrageenan from their products.
It is not as if these high profile organic food producers willingly misled their customers. As the Stonyfield website comment reveals, a lot of organic food companies considered the seaweed-based natural food additive to be harmless for human consumption. And some researchers would still claim that the evidence against carrageenan is not entirely conclusive. But since 2012, no one in the organic food industry can report to their customers that they remain unaware of growing research that connects carrageenan to potential serious health problems.
Carrageenan’s Health Impacts
Although carrageenan is derived from the red Irish moss seaweed plant, it appears to be especially disruptive to the digestive system, triggering an inflammatory immune response similar to what a pathogen like Salmonella may cause, which can lead to ulcerations and bleeding. Researcher Joanne Tobacman, MD, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Illinois School of Medicine at Chicago reports on carrageenan irritating the digestive system by activating an immune response that leads to inflammation. Dr. Tobacman is also committed to further research, funded through the National Institutes of Health, focusing on carrageenan’s effect on ulcerative colitis and other diseases. Additionally, her previous research raised wider concerns that connected carrageenan and gastrointestinal cancer in lab animals.
The research that connects carrageenan with inflammatory response is especially alarming. Today, the medical community regards chronic inflammation in any part of the body as the root cause of numerous serious diseases, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s diseases, and a range of cancer issues.
However, the issue of carrageenan as an actual carcinogen gets muddled to some degree because of the context in which the food processing industry claims that the two distinct types of carrageenan, the low molecular weight or “degraded carrageenan” and “food grade” carrageenan, differ in toxicity. When carrageenan is used as a fat stabilizer in dairy food substitutes like soy or coconut milk, the more toxic low molecular weight or “degraded carrageenan” is used instead of “food grade” carrageenan. It is true that, in general, low fat products are not usually a wise purchase at the grocery store. Invariably, some little-known toxic ingredient gets added to the mix to reduce the fat content and still please the palate. Still, the food processing industry claims that “food grade” carrageenan is different from the low molecular weight or “degraded carrageenan” that is toxic to human cells may be little more than hype, because it ignores the fact that products safety tested for carrageenan were free of this degraded form.
Additionally, research over the last 30 years reveals that the human digestive process naturally converts food-grade carrageenan to the degraded, highly toxic form, making us susceptible to an inflammatory immune response from consuming carrageenan in any form. Again, this is similar to findings that illustrate how pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella assault the gut with inflammation.
Is the research on carrageenan conclusive? Maybe not. But why settle for questionable food additives when we can find so many types of real seaweed on the shelves? If we really find ourselves craving for a touch of Irish moss in our ice cream, we can do this on our own, after all.