Controversial New Research Says Carrageenan is Safe

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New research funded in part by the International Food Additives Council (IFAC) seems to confirm the safety of carrageenan as a food additive. The new study, published in the journal Food and Toxicology, has failed to replicate extensive research from the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago that suggests carrageenan causes intestinal inflammation. A member of the original Chicago research teams, however, does not believe that this research adequately replicates the methods of the original study.

The new research was released just a little over a month after the U.S. National Organic Standards Board recommended removing carrageenan from the list of approved ingredients in organic foods due to its links to intestinal problems. Carrageenan's latest five-year exemption on the national list ends in 2018.

Some believe that this new information will provide ample motivation for carrageenan's reapproval by the USDA in November 2018.

“We feel confident that the study will reassure [board members] as to the safety of carrageenan as well as raise major questions about the validity of the scientific research cited by carrageenan detractors as evidence the substance should not be permitted in organic foods,” said Robert Rankin, executive director of the IFAC.

The IFAC claims that the results of the Chicago studies, which were performed from 2008 to 2015, have never been replicated by other groups.

“My work clearly demonstrates that the Chicago group’s findings could not be replicated and that carrageenan does not cause the induction of inflammatory proteins,” James McKim, study author and recognized carrageenan expert, told FoodNavigator-USA.

“When science cannot be replicated, we must be very suspect of the findings and question what may have gone wrong,” McKim says. He believes that impurities may have contaminated the Chicago group’s work.

However, Dr. Joanne Tobacman, scientist at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, one of the nation’s foremost independent experts on carrageenan, and a key member of the Chicago research groups, does not feel that the original experiment was replicated in this new study.

"The McKim study did not try to replicate the findings in our studies," she contends. "They
used different cell lines and different assays in their work, which was funded by industry."

Differences between the two experiments include, amongst others, the solution in which the carrageenan was dissolved, the observation of the effect of prolonged exposure, and the cell lines used, which, in the case of Tobacman's study, were derived from normal human colon and colonic epithelial cells, and in the case of the McKim study were derived from intestinal cancer cells.

Dr. Linley Dixon, lead scientist at the Cornucopia Institute, notes that the Chicago group was not the first to show a link between carrageenan and intestinal troubles, citing dozens of publicly funded studies from multiple labs across the world, ranging from a 1969 study published in the Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology that showed that food-grade carrageenan contributed to ulcerative colitis-like diseases in guinea pigs, to a 2016 study in Molecular Nutritional Food Research that showed that food-grade carrageenan may reduce protein and peptide bioaccessibility and promote intestinal inflammation,

"The industry (including IFAC) likes to paint the story that they are refuting the science done by a single lab (Tobacman's), but as you can see this is hardly the case," she notes.

Carrageenan is a seaweed-derived substance commonly used as an emulsifier or thickener in food products such as ice cream, baby formula, and nondairy milk.

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