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If you do a simple internet search on carrageenan and you’ll find that it is a substance extracted from red and purple seaweeds. You may also see that this sea vegetable is high in iodine, sulfur, trace minerals and vitamins. So when you see carrageenan listed in the ingredients you probably don’t give it a second thought.

But, I’m here to tell you to pay attention to those labels and that pervasive ingredient carrageenan!

You’ll find it in foods containing milk, non-dairy milks, chocolate, cottage cheese, ice cream, infant formulas, dietetic beverages, low-fat meats and yogurts. It is used as a thickener and texture enhancer in food, but is also found in cosmetics, toothpastes, room deodorizers and pesticides.

So the FDA considers this a harmless food additive and at one point I never paid much attention to it myself. In 2003 friend was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and she found some info about carrageenan involved in inflammation. Together we looked through many conflicting reports and found no clear answers.

The conflict was mostly surrounding the two different forms that have been studied – degraded vs. undegraded. The degraded forms (the type not used in food) were linked to dysfunction, ulcerations and cancers of the gastrointestinal tract in several different animal and in vitro studies.

Many dismissed the concern surrounding these studies because:

Carrageenan hadn’t been sufficiently studied in humans and affects differing species differently. Mice developed tumors, rats showed no ulcerations or lesions, pigs showed abnormalities in the intestines but no ulcerations or tumors and so on.
Undegraded had not shown similar effects and that after all is what is used as a food additive.
Animal models were fed carrageenan in higher concentrations than is typically found in the human diet.

So what – case closed. Forget those older studies and look at what is now happening.

In April 2012, Joanne K. Tobacman, M.D addressed the National Organic Standards Board on the carrageen issue and urged reconsideration of the use of this additive in organic foods.

Dr. Tobacman has published 18 peer-reviewed studies that address the biological effects of carrageenan and is convinced that it is harmful to human health. She specifically conducted studies linking undegraded carrageenan – the type that is widely used in foods – with malignancies and other stomach problems. Her studies have convinced her that all forms of carrageenan are capable of causing inflammation.

Now get this! Drug investigators actually use carrageenan to cause inflammation in tissues. Yes, it is referred to as carrageenan-induced cytokine production. Now we all know that chronic inflammation is associated with many diseases including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer. Blood sugar control is often linked with inflammation these days too. So how about this study that shows carrageenan impairs glucose tolerance, increases insulin resistance and inhibits insulin signalling

Dr. Tobacman maintains that all types of carrageenan are harmful and suggests that acid digestion, heating, bacterial action and mechanical processing can all accelerate degradation of food-grade carrageenan.

Now many researchers believe that it promotes irritable bowel, colorectal cancer, breast cancers and more.

Chemists have discovered that carrageenan suppresses gamma interferon, a cytokine crucial for tumor and infectious control (like hepatitis), as well as control of inflammation and autoimmune disease, arthritis, and more.

The average intake of carrageenan for most individuals is 100 mg a day.

So my take-away is read the labels on the foods and products you consume and stay clear of anything that has carrageenan listed especially if you already have inflammation, GI dysfunction or an autoimmune disease.