Carrageenan: Harmless Additive or Gastrointestinal Bomb?

Carrageenan is made from seaweed


Do you suffer from an irritable stomach? Does your intestinal tract suddenly go haywire, without early warning? There could be many food related reasons, such as gluten sensitivity, lactose intolerance, food poisoning, etc…

It may also be a sensitivity to carrageenan.

Carra- what?

Carrageenan is a common food additive that is found in a variety of foods. It is used to increase the viscosity of shakes, ice cream, tofu, infant formula, salad dressings, and other sauces. It is used as a thickener in non dairy milks in order to emulate the mouth feel of whole milk. In general, foods that have had fat removed, can add carrageenan as a replacement.

Chemically, carrageenan is a polysaccharide, and from a nutrition perspective is a dietary fiber.

What is made of?

Carrageenan is made from seaweed. It has been used for hundreds of years in Ireland and China, but only made headway into modern food processing in the last 50 years. After harvesting the seaweed, the processing steps  include drying, grounding, filtration, treatment with potassium hydroxide, removal of cellulose by centrifuge, concentration by evaporation, drying, and grounding. Interestingly, the Philippines account for the vast majority of the world supply of carrageenan.

What are the health risks of carrageenan?

In some animal studies, carrageenan was shown to cause intestinal lacerations and tumors. A 2001 meta-study of 45 peer-reviewed studies concluded that carrageenan consumption may result in gastrointestinal malignancy and inflammatory bowel.

The FDA has approved carrageenan as safe, basing its decision on industry funded studies. European agencies and the World Health Organization have also deemed carrageenan safe, with the exception of infant formula. The fear is that a baby’s gut may be unable to handle the large carrageenan molecules.

What should I do?

Some ingredients, like trans-fats are universally bad for people. Others, such as MSG, only cause problems for some folks. It seems like carrageenan is closer to MSG than to trans-fats. But if you are having gut issues, take the time to see if removal of foods with carrageenan may have a positive effect on you.

Want to know if your food contains carrageenan? Get the free Fooducate app for iPhone and Android


Environmental Health Perspectives – Review of Harmful Gastrointestinal Effects of Carrageenan in Animal Experiments

Tobacman JK. Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments. Environ Health Perspect. 2001 Oct;109(10):983-94.

Marcus R, Watt J. Seaweeds and ulcerative colitis in laboratory animals. Lancet. 1969 Aug 30;2(7618):489-90.

Yang B, Bhattacharyya S, Linhardt R, Tobacman J. Exposure to common food additive carrageenan leads to reduced sulfatase activity and increase in sulfated glycosaminoglycans in human epithelial cells. Biochimie. 2012 Jun;94(6):1309-16.

Bhattacharyya S, O-Sullivan I, Katyal S, Unterman T, Tobacman JK. Exposure to the common food additive carrageenan leads to glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and inhibition of insulin signalling in HepG2 cells and C57BL/6J mice. Diabetologia. 2012 Jan;55(1):194-203.

Bhattacharyya S, Dudeja PK, Tobacman JK. Tumor necrosis factor alpha-induced inflammation is increased but apoptosis is inhibited by common food additive carrageenan. J Biol Chem. 2010 Dec 10;285(50):39511-22.

Bhattacharyya S, Borthakur A, Dudeja PK, Tobacman JK. Carrageenan induces cell cycle arrest in human intestinal epithelial cells in vitro. J Nutr. 2008 Mar;138(3):469-75.

Bhattacharyya S, Borthakur A, Dudeja PK, Tobacman JK. Carrageenan reduces bone morphogenetic protein-4 (BMP4) and activates the Wnt/beta-catenin pathway in normal human colonocytes. Dig Dis Sci. 2007 Oct;52(10):2766-74.

  • Gwen Hill

    Hmmm…very interesting! Glad I found Fooducate. I get smarter with each encounter.

    • Fooducate

      Thanks Gwen!

  • Maryellen

    Wow, I did not realise it was so processed. Thanks for keeping us informed.

  • Food skeptic

    Is there anything people don’t have a sensitivity too? Everytime you turn around there’s another thing being added to the list.

  • DarrylM

    How many whole foods have this additive? None. Eat more whole foods.

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