By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
As I stroll down the aisle of my favorite "organic" health food store, I'll admit to more than occasional feelings of food snobbery. Organic foodists take the time and spend the money to seek out foods that are free of those nasty preservatives and additives that cause cancer and a host of other life-shortening diseases. Imagine my shock when I learned that one of my only indulgences -- organic yogurt --- actually contains a potentially dangerous additive, called "carrageenan".
You can find carrageenan in many foods, from ice cream to yogurts, high protein powdered shakes and even meat.
Because carrageenan makes food creamy, it is used in yogurt, ice creams, coconut milk, almond milk, baby formula, smoothies and soups. Carrageenan is also injected into chickens and other deli meats to help them "hold together" longer on grocery store food shelves.
Carrageenan, also called Irish moss, is a red seaweed harvested from the beautiful turquoise waters off the coast of Indonesia and the Philippines in seaweed farms.
When boiled, the red seaweed releases a substance ---carrageenan --- that thickens the mixture. People living along the coasts of Ireland and France have been using carrageenan to thicken milk into cream for over 200 years. What could be wrong with that?
Plenty. Carrageenan has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, IBS, cancer, Crohn's disease and Alzheimer's disease, to name a few.
Carrageenan Tied to Increased Incidence of Cancer
Carrageenan, once degraded, raises the risk for cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that degraded carrageenan is a " Group 2B" carcinogen. The IARC found that there is in fact enough scientific evidence from animal studies to to conclude that “in the absence of adequate data on humans, it is reasonable, for practical purposes, to regard chemicals for which there is sufﬁcient evidence of carcinogenicity in animals as if they presented a carcinogenic risk to humans."
But this ruling only applied to "degraded carrageenan". It turns out that simply processing the carrageenan in a less than careful way as it is prepared for sale to upline food processors is enough in some cases to "degrade" the carrageenan, according to studies carried out by Dr. Joanne Tobacman of the University of Iowa, College of Medicine.
Carrageenan Increases Risk of Diabetes
When mice are fed a diet enriched with carrageenan for just 18 days, they quickly develop insulin impairment and glucose intolerance, according to a study led by Dr. Joanne Tobacman of the University of Iowa, College of Medicine.
People in Because many of the farmers who grow carrageenan are from the developing world and depend on the harvest of the seaweed for their living, carrageenan also allowed food manufacturers to burnish their image as eco-friendly.
Carrageenan Linked to Intestinal Inflammation, IBS and Stomach Ulcers
In 1970, about 5000 tons of carrageenan were sold worldwide. Now, 40 times that amount, 200,000 tons per year, make their way into the food chain, including the organic food chain. Because carrageenan makes food creamy, it is used in yogurt, ice creams, coconut milk, almond milk, baby formula, smoothies and soups. Carrageenan is also injected into chickens and other deli meats to help them "hold together" longer on grocery store food shelves.
If you look on the food label, you might not be able to spot carrageenan. For example, in France, carrageenan is listed as addictive "E407". Who would know that that is carrageenan?
Scientists have noticed that the incidence of IBS, Crohn's disease and other intestinal problems has increased in parallel fashion with the global increase in use of carrageenan. A 2017 study from a group of scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health, Dalhousie University in Canada and the IWK Health Centre in also in Canada found that we have reason to worry about consuming carrageenan.
This group observed that "Animal studies consistently report that carrageenan and CMC induce histopathological features that are typical of IBD while altering the microbiome, disrupting the intestinal epithelial barrier, inhibiting proteins that provide protection against microorganisms, and stimulating the elaboration of pro-inflammatory cytokines."
Step back and take that in. We don't all have a perfect health system and even if we do, some of us like to stay healthy. We pay good money for supposedly organic food, the powers-that-be then allow a potentially dangerous additive to be folded into the preparation, this gunk is then packaged nice and pretty, and sold to us at a premium as "healthy" or "organic".
We didn't ask for carrageenan to be injected into our deli meats. When we buy ice cream or yogurt, we think we're eating natural ingredients --- some milk, cream, eggs, maybe a little sugar, fruit, chocolate or vanilla bean--- not some processed additive that is inflaming out intestines and triggering the cascade that can lead to cancer.
And by the way, does anyone in the food chain stop to think to warn those of us who might be allergic to seaweed that yummy ice cream, yogurt or chicken slices might just be full of it?
The European Union Has Banned Carrageenan's Use in Baby Food
In 1995, the European Parliament and the European Council banned the use of carrageenan in infant formula. For adult food, actually for all food that is not infant formula, carrageenan can still be found in the food chain. In the US, carrageenan is regulated as a food additive but can be used in all foods.
Recently, the National Organics Standards Board has advised the US Food and Drug Administration to outlaw carrageenan in organic foods. So far, though, carrageenan is still allowed as an additive.
All of which means that it's up to you to safeguard yoyr health and that of your family against this food additive.