When purchasing organic soymilk from her local market, Maria Anna Kellner of Warwick never thought she would question one of the ingredients listed on the carton.
“If it’s organic and reasonably priced, I don’t mind taking it,” she said.
While Kellner doesn’t make a point to eat organic, she saw the reasonably priced Rolling Hills Farm product and decided to try it.
However, after using the milk for a few days, she happened to look at the nutrition label and saw carrageenan listed as an ingredient.
An avid viewer of health reports and other health-related programs on television, the woman recognized the unique word as something that was reportedly dangerous for one’s health. So she took to the Internet to do some research.
Through sites from Dr. Weil and the Cornucopia Institute, she learned that carrageenan is a red seaweed extract. She said the sites reported that this ingredient could cause intestinal, colon and heart problems, as well as diabetes.
Through conversations with her health-conscious daughter and friends, the concerned citizen learned that carrageenan is a common ingredient in many products such as yogurt, string cheese, ice cream and salad dressings.
Because of her personal research, Kellner says this product is “a plastic that settles in the visceral fats” in the stomach.
“People complain about the youth being obese. Could this have something to do with it,” asks Kellner.
She was so concerned, Kellner called the Hood Company, which owns Rolling Hills Farm. It took her a while, but she finally was directed to an employee in the Consumer Affairs department. Kellner said the employee told her the extract is used as a common thickening agent, but added that the company frequently gets calls concerning the ingredient.
Kathleen J. Melanson, associate professor of nutrition science at the University of Rhode Island, explained that concerns about carrageenan have been common since the 1960s and 1970s, but it is simply due to a lot of confusion.
Melanson, who is also director of URI’s Energy Balance Laboratory, explained that the red seaweed extract is often used in dairy products or even meats as a thickening agent or gel formula to replace fats. The extract helps foods maintain a creamy consistency that is often lost due to fat removal.
“When you remove fat from foods, the texture changes completely,” said Melanson. “Carrageenan can be used to maintain the consistency that makes dairy products appealing to consumers.”
There are multiple forms of carrageenan, but the one used in different foods is one that binds to proteins and settles in the intestinal track. Melanson explained that it is actually considered a “dietary fiber” that is not digested.
“When we consume it, it binds to proteins,” said the professor.
Melanson said that both the Food and Drug Administration and National Organic Program have deemed carrageenan safe for consumption and use in organic products. However, concerns have led to continuous studies over the years.
Melanson said that these studies are conducted on isolated cells or in animal models, such as rodents, to test for the creation of carcinogens, which can lead to cancer. But what they are testing is not what we would find in our bowl of ice cream.
“They are very different from the carrageenan in our diet, both in amount and form,” said Melanson.
In studies involving rodent animal models, Melanson said the purest form of carrageenan is used, not the protein form used in foods. She added the amount of the extract used in the studies is much larger than the amount that is consumed through a daily glass of soymilk or carton of yogurt.
Even when the study was done in primates, whose systems mirror that of humans, there was no evidence that consuming carrageenan could harm humans.
Melanson explained that a study involving baboons showed no adverse effects. While a 1975 study did show evidence of changing colon cells in monkeys, those animals were given five times the amount of carrageenan in a typical human diet.
“There is virtually no human data [regarding carrageenan],” said Melanson.
In 2011, Melanson said further study was suggested regarding effects on the colon, but today Melanson said there is no need to avoid carrageenan.
In fact, Melanson said other studies suggest carrageenan can be healthy in a balanced diet.
“Some promote the consumption of seaweed because of nutrients and traces of vitamins and minerals,” said Melanson, adding that carrageenan is also a dietary fiber and has antioxidants.
Also, since it is used as a replacement for fat, it can be beneficial for people watching their fat intake who still want to enjoy products such as cottage cheese and yogurt.
“It is understandable why there is this confusion,” said Melanson.
While Melanson said there is no evidence of carrageenan being adverse to humans, as with anything in a balanced diet, you don’t want to consume too much.
“In the meantime, moderation is key. But I don’t think people need to be concerned that it is overly dangerous,” said Melanson. “The current information we have says that the normal amount in foods will not cause issues.”
Kellner said she will still be vigilant in avoiding foods with carrageenan and will continue doing research on the topic.