One of the debates going on in the organic world is the use of an emulsifier called carrageenan. Although many experts, including members of the National Organic Standards Board, have asked for this additive to be banned from the list of approved organic ingredients, the US Department of Agriculture recently announced that organic food companies can continue to use the ingredient in foods such as high-protein beverages, yogurt, coconut milk, baby formula, and ice cream.
What is carrageenan and what’s wrong with it?
Carrageenan is derived from red algae or seaweed and processed through an alkaline technique, resulting in what some call a natural food ingredient. Although carrageenan has no nutritional value, it is added to many foods and healthcare products (e.g., toothpaste) as a thickening agent, stabilizer, and binder. Carrageenan is what gives foods such as ice cream the creamy feel in your mouth and it helps keep liquids well-mixed and smooth.
While these may sound like positive qualities, carrageenan has a dark side. According to many experts, including Joanne Tobacman, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the amount of carrageenan in food products is sufficient to cause inflammation. She explains that both food-grade carrageenan and carrageenan that has degraded (which can occur if the algae is prepared using an acidic process) pose health risks.
Researchers have named numerous health hazards associated with the ingestion of carrageenan. These findings have been primarily confined to animal studies and include:
- Ulcerative colitis
- Colorectal cancer
- Insulin resistance
- Liver cancer
- Suppressed immune function, among others
What can be used instead of carrageenan?
Organic food manufacturers say carrageenan is not only safe but that no other safe, organic ingredients can replace it. However, opponents of continuing to allow carrageenan to be listed as an organic ingredient disagree, naming gellan gum, xanthan gum (Now Foods offers a xanthan gum powder), and locust bean gum as candidates. Use of these substances has met resistance from the industry, for example, because some say the switch is too difficult.
According to a statement from the Consumers Union, which appeared in an Oregon Public Broadcast report, the decision by the USDA is “another step to undermine the integrity of the USDA Organic label.”
For now, if you are concerned and want to take action, you can avoid all products that contain carrageenan-which will require reading all ingredient labels carefully. You also can contact food manufacturers who continue to use carrageenan and voice your opinion about their use of this additive and urge them to consider alternatives.
Axe J. What is carrageenan?
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