Carrageenan is a food additive that is extracted from red seaweed. It is used as a thickener and emulsifier and is found in dairy products, processed meat, soymilk, toothpaste, and ready to feed infant formulas. I first came across it on an ingredient list early in on my gluten free (and food label reading) life. Once I learned that it is gluten free and “natural,” I assumed it was safe for me to eat as a celiac. However, a few months ago I began developing GI upset every time I ingested it, and I cut it totally out of my diet. Based on what I have now learned, I am glad that carrageenan is out of my life and kitchen.
First of all, the definitive answer to the question, “Is carrageenan safe for celiacs?” is never going to be known in our lifetimes. No one is going to pay for a randomized controlled trial in which one group of celiacs are fed carrageenan and one group are fed a placebo, and outcomes of the two groups are measured. It’s just not going to happen.
Carrageenan has antiviral properties and stimulates the immune system. On a quick search through the Pubmed.gov database, carrageenan aids in killing viruses and is being researched as an additive in treatments for HIV, enterovirus, and human papilloma virus.
When rats are given carageenan, they develop inflammation and arthritis-type symptoms. Many studies of anti-inflammatory medications involve giving the test medications to Carrageenan exposed, and hence, inflamed rats and monitoring for improvement and side effects.
Research has shown that animals given carrageenan in high doses develop polyps, ulcers, tumors, and inflammation of the intestine. Most of the published research on the effects of carrageenan on human cells and tissues is by Dr. J. Tobacman from the University of Illinois, Chicago. In the past year she has shown that carrageenan leads to enzyme changes and an inflammatory response in human intestinal and mammary cells as well. See link for more information.
There are two types of carrageenan. The first is degraded, or low molecular weight, and is the type which has been shown to cause inflammation in animals and human cells. It is not used in food products and products for human consumption. The second type is undegraded, or high molecular weight, and is the type which is added to foods and beauty products. There is an widespread belief that undegraded carrageenan is safe, and according to the Stonyfield farms website:
The scientific literature overwhelmingly concludes that undegraded carrageenan is safe to eat. Based on this independent review of the literature, along with the Board’s recommendation to continue to allow it in organic production, we feel that carrageenan continues to be a safe ingredient to use.
What we don’t have any information about is whether or not our bodies convert some of the undegraded (“safe”) form to degraded (“unsafe”) form after we have eaten it. There are a few small studies from the 1970s which show that this chemical change occurs in the intestinal tract of rats and guinea pigs.
The European Union has banned the use of carrageenan in infant formulas due to concerns about safety in this population. I just checked the website of the major U.S. formula makers and it is still present in most ready-to-feed formulas commercially available in the U.S.
Dr. Weil, M.D., one of the nation’s leaders in integrative health, spoke out against carrageenan in October 2012 (see link), stating, “I recommend avoiding regular consumption of foods containing carrageenan. This is especially important advice for persons with inflammatory bowel disease.”
As a Celiac I’ve made my decision and there’s no turning back now….