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Is Carrageenan Safe?

Recently, I wrote White Wave, the makers of Silk soymilk to ask if they would reconsider the use of carrageenan in their products as the safety of regular consumption seems still an unknown. What follows is their response, to which I’ve added links to the various studies they referenced.

For the most part, I tend to err on the side of caution, in this case preferring soymilk made without this additive. Better yet, should time allow, I like to make my own, which tends to be almost as creamy as those manufactured with this thickener, and certainly creamier than those without.

Thank you for your recent email to Silk®. We appreciate your interest in our products.

Carrageenan is a naturally occurring thickener derived from red seaweed. It is also known as chondrus extract or Irish moss. There are two different types of carrageenan, food-grade and degraded. Silk® Soymilk uses only food-grade carrageenan as a natural thickening agent. It is used in many other food products such as cottage and cream cheeses, pie fillings, chocolate products, ice cream and salad dressings, among others. Degraded carrageenan is never used as a food ingredient.

Recently there has been some negative press on the safety of carrageenan. An article published in 2001 by Joanne Tobacman, a researcher at the University of Iowa, claimed that carrageenan may cause lesions or cancer in the gastro intestinal tract (Tobacman: Env. Health Per., Vol. 109, No. 10, Oct 2001). However, the Tobacman study was performed using only degraded carrageenan, not food-grade carrageenan, an entirely different substance.

Many consumers express concern that stomach acid could turn food-grade carrageenan into degraded carrageenan during the digestion process. However numerous studies on the digestion of food-grade carrageenan have shown that “it is either not degraded, not degraded to the same molecular weight, or not degraded in the same way” as the degraded form, and that the limited degradation that has been detected, has had “no effect on the gut wall”
(Carrageenan & furcellaran, WHO Food Additives Series 19, Sept., 2003).

The safety of food-grade carrageenan was substantiated at a joint meeting of the FAO/WHO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) in June 2001. JECFA recommended an Acceptable Daily Intake of “not specified”, the most favorable ADI a food additive can receive. The JECFA review was based on extensive safety studies of food-grade carrageenan, including evaluation of such matters as degradation and carcinogenicity.

Additionally, a review paper by Samuel Cohen, M.D., Ph.D and Dr. Nobuyuki Ito, adopted by the JEFCA in their deliberations, evaluated and rebutted the evidence of claims of carcinogenity. The paper states, “In long term bioassays, carrageenan has not been found to be carcinogenic, and there is no credible evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect or a tumor-promoting effect on the colon in rodents.” Drs. Cohen and Ito are well-known and respected cancer researchers.

A review of existing scientific literature indicates that food-grade carrageenan is safe for all food uses. It is neither toxic nor carcinogenic. Silk products contain only the highest quality food-grade carrageenan available. We will continue to use only natural and safe ingredients in all of our products.

Our Silk® Almondmilk products are the only products right now that we manufactured without the use of carrageenan.

We hope this information is helpful.

Here’s Dr. Michael Greger’s brief take on the subject:

Lastly, it’s worth pointing out the way So Delicious handled the controversy. While they too are of the opinion that undegraded carrageenan “has been proven to be safe through rigorous studies,” they nevertheless are listening to their customers and have set about reworking their coconut milk over the last two years to exclude carrageenan. The new formula will start appearing on shelves in early 2014, and they have further pledged that “from now on, every new product we release will be carrageenan-free.”

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