New Report on Carrageenan in Food Points to Severe Health Risks

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A new report summarizing research on carrageenan in food has been released by the organic food industry watchdog group, the Cornucopia Institute. The report exposes hidden industry data on the controversial food additive, which has ben linked to health problems including inflammation and cancer.

The report, "Carrageenan: New Studies Reinforce Link to Inflammation, Cancer, and Diabetes," is the result of a three-year investigation on the part of the Cornucopia Institute and contains information gleaned from 1,337 questionnaire responses from individuals about their own health.

The report was formally released on April 25, at one of the two annual meetings of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board. The NOSB is a 15-member panel advising the Agriculture Department on which non-organic substances should be allowed in organic products. The carrageenan issue was previously broached by the Cornucopia Institute at the 2012 NOSB meeting, but it was postponed to this year so that the Board could collect more data.

Carrageenan has been shown to cause chronic and acute intestinal inflammation in nearly 4,000 studies, according to the report.

“For the past four decades, scientists have warned that the use of carrageenan in food is not safe,” the report reads. “Animal studies and in-vitro studies with human cells have repeatedly shown that food-grade carrageenan causes gastrointestinal inflammation and higher rates of intestinal lesions, ulcerations, and even malignant tumors.”

It has also been shown, despite claims to the contrary by carrageenan producers, that carrageenan often contains poligeenan, a related compound and known carcinogen.

“The industry’s own data has revealed that all twelve food-grade carrageenan samples tested did in fact contain poligeenan in varying quantities up to 25%,” Linley Dixon, PhD, Cornucopia’s Senior Staff Scientist, said in a press release.

Some of the data included in the report was originally published online ten years ago by the Marinalg Working Group, a carrageenan producer. It was subsequently removed, after aggressive lobbying for the continued approval of food-grade carrageenan.

“Marinalg’s cover-up of this scientific data demonstrates how damaging the results could be to the carrageenan industry,” Dr. Dixon said.

The report also details the flaws of many other industry-funded studies defending carrageenan.

“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 said. “The carrageenan industry has used both of these tactics and, to top it off, hidden its own counterproductive results as well.”

The Natural Products Association defended the use of carrageenan in organic infant formula at the NOSB meeting, submitting both written and oral comments in its defense.

Leading organic brands, including Organic Valley, have already removed carrageenan from many of their products.

2016 recommendations from NOSB on this issue have yet to be released.

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Ice cream image via Shutterstock

[Updated June 17, 2016: Carrageenan is permitted in baby formula in the U.S. This article previously stated it was banned.]

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