New Report: Widespread Contamination In A Common Food-Grade Ingredient

It always makes me sad to report on an issue in which corporate America puts greed ahead of the health of the consumer.  It makes me a little more sad when it’s the organic consumers who are being harmed. 

The Cornucopia Institute has just issued a report where they have exposed the industry’s hidden data demonstrating that all food-grade carrageenan contains a carcinogenic contaminant – low molecular weight poligeenan. 

Carrageenan, harvested from specific species of red seaweed, is a highly effective thickener/stabilizer found in processed foods including infant formula, plant-based beverages, deli meats, and some dairy products, including cream. The controversy over carrageenan has existed between food industry representatives and public health researchers for years, but it is now flaring up again over its use in organic food. 

Thankfully, organic food shoppers are pretty savvy people and have likely been trying to eliminate any products that contain carrageenan.  Many health and wellness bloggers have spoken of its dangers for several years and due to social media, we have even had a few companies take preemptive action eliminating this ingredient from their lineup. 

Cornucopia’s report, Carrageenan: New Studies Reinforce Link to Inflammation, Cancer, and Diabetes, will be formally released in Washington, on April 25, at the upcoming meeting of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board. The board will be debating whether to remove carrageenan from its list of approved materials for use in organic food.

Cornucopia, a farm policy research group, has made available the full set of data that was originally published online ten years ago by the Marinalg Working Group. The data show widespread contamination of food-grade carrageenan with poligeenan, both of which cause chronic and acute intestinal inflammation and can cause cancer.

Marinalg, the trade-lobby group representing carrageenan manufactures, had posted the illuminating research on its website, but later removed it since it has aggressively lobbied food safety regulators for continued approval of the use of carrageenan in food.

Mark A Kastel, Cornucopia co-director stated:

This type of subterfuge by powerful agribusiness might have been successful at the FDA, or before European regulators, but we are optimistic that, carrying out the mandate of the U.S. Congress, the National Organic Standards Board will weigh the current evidence and protect organic consumers by banning this dangerous material.

The “smoking gun” data was originally published to meet the demands of a 2005 European Commission recommendation that no more than five percent of food-grade carrageenan fractions should have a molecular weight below 50 kD due to the well-known health concerns associated with low molecular weight carrageenan.

Carrageenan producers have long claimed that food-grade carrageenan and poligeenan (a known carcinogen) are two distinctly different substances. The industry still denies that food-grade carrageenan contains poligeenan, however, publicly funded scientific research has long found otherwise.

Linley Dixon, PhD, Cornucopia’s Senior Staff Scientist has said:

Now, the industry’s own data has revealed that all twelve food-grade carrageenan samples tested did in fact contain poligeenan in varying quantities up to 25%.

Carrageenan is such an efficient inflammatory agent and carcinogen, it is widely used to study the molecular signals involved in cancer and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Publicly-funded researchers have published dozens of studies on the harmful health effects of consuming food-grade carrageenan, but the industry has aggressively responded by funding its own studies, many of which Cornucopia critiques in the new report.  Dr. Dixon stated:

Marinalg’s cover-up of this scientific data demonstrates how damaging the results could be to the carrageenan industry.

Research has shown that besides the initial contamination in food-grade carrageenan, stomach acid in the human digestive tract can convert a percentage of carrageenan that may otherwise be safe into the most dangerous, carcinogenic form.

Through experimentation, many people have discovered a correlation between carrageenan in their diets and a myriad of symptoms such as diarrhea/irritable bowel syndrome, and more serious inflammatory bowel disease and colitis. For many, when carrageenan is removed from the diet symptoms quickly dissipate.

As part of its investigation over the last three years, The Cornucopia Institute has received 1,337 questionnaire responses from individuals reporting they had suffered adverse health effects after consuming carrageenan. One respondent, Charlene Beebe of Townsend, Montana stated, “My husband has been ill with ulcerative colitis for 20 years, and has been in remission since we removed carrageenan. Unknowingly, I began buying cream with carrageenan in it for a few weeks now and he started bleeding and had a terrible gut ache for weeks now. I since found out the cream contains carrageenan and about fell through the floor. I am furious!”

The Cornucopia Institute’s report is being released as the National Organic Standards Board reviews carrageenan for continued use in organic foods. In addition to health concerns, the report points out that carrageenan is not “essential.”

“For every organic product containing carrageenan, an organic alternative exists, produced by one or more competitors,” said Kastel. “That has allowed the marketplace to prove, conclusively, that carrageenan does not meet the legal threshold as an ingredient in organic food based on a lack of essentiality.”

Leading organic brands, like the farmer-owned cooperative Organic Valley, have removed carrageenan from many of their products in response to customer concerns. “The co-op has recognized the informed concerns of organic shoppers by labeling their sliced deli meats as containing ‘no binders, fillers or carrageenan’.”

Even some toothpaste brands have shunned the carcinogen.

“When the CEO of the iconic Dr. Bronner’s brand became aware of the research on carrageenan, their CEO, David Bronner, researched the alternatives and found that xanthan gum performed just as well in their toothpaste,” Kastel said. Dr. Bronner’s, known for its line of soaps along with other bodycare and food products, is a prominent leader in the fight to maintain organic standards and advocate for GMO labeling.

I commend those in the industry who are taking action to remove this ingredient to satisfy consumer concerns, and hope that more will continue to do so after seeing this report from the Cornucopia Institute. 

I highly recommend that all of you take your own action (personal responsibility always trumps regulation anyway).  Make sure you are reading your ingredient labels on everything — even if it’s organic and bought at a health food store.  Even though makers of healthier merchandise tend to work hard to keep harmful ingredients out of their products, you just never know when they too have been tricked by the food industry (or let greed rule their decision making, unfortunately).

To learn the shocking truth about what goes on behind-the-scenes in the food industry, check out “Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets” by Joanna Blythman. 



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1 Comment

  1. says: Colby

    Um… what? I really didn’t have any idea that this stuff was harmful. Once again, something adds evidence to the claim (…fact) that synthetics and powerful extracts have a great potential to do harm if misused. When I got a sweet tooth or opt for something “easy and fast,” probably 1/3 or 1/4 of the time it’d contain this stuff. Seeing as how the first thing to act up for me when I’m eating wrong is my digestive tract, I guess carrageenan now makes it to the banned ingredients list! I’ve seen it time and again – ‘health’ companies that people trust often times whistle and look away when early claims are made about ingredient safety. Eating “from scratch” meals and snacks has never been more important!
    “personal responsibility always trumps regulation anyway”

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