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Is Carrageenan A Safe Food Additive for Gluten Free Foods?


carregeenan in coconut milkWith more and more products being produced for the health food (including the gluten free) market, we see the novel use of more and more food additives. Many of these additives are used to add texture, thicken, or change the mouth feel of foods so that they can better mimic their gluten containing counter parts. One of the more commonly used thickening and gelling agents comes from a form of seaweed. This additive is known as Carrageenan. The food filler has been used in the U.S. on a mass scale since the 1930’s. It is extracted from seaweed using a chemical known as potassium hydroxide. Carrageenan is used in a variety of different processed foods. The following is a short list of some of the more common ones:

Common Foods With Added Carrageenan

  • Baked goods
  • Baby formulas
  • Yogurt
  • Ice cream
  • Low fat dairy products
  • carregeenan in milk substitutesCoffee creamers
  • Sour cream
  • Juice Drinks
  • Soy milk
  • Almond milk
  • Coconut milk
  • Salad dressings and other processed sauces
  • Beer
  • Diet Sodas
  • Processed meats
  • Jams and Jellies
  • Filler for medications
  • …and yes even pet foods

Should You Eat Foods with Carrageenan?

The short answer in my humble opinion is NO. Even though this additive is on the U.S. GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list, there have been a number of studies showing that this seaweed extract can cause gastrointestinal inflammation. Why is that a problem for those on a gluten free diet? Typically going gluten free is just a start on the right track to recovering health. In my clinical experience, those with years of gluten induced inflammatory damage are more susceptible to processed foods causing persistent health issues. Carrageenan based products causing gastrointestinal symptoms are common in my clinic. Consider the following information:
  1. Carrageenan is hard to break down and digest. Adding foods like this to an already inflamed GI tract can slow down the healing process dramatically. In my experience, this is one of the most common problems I see in patients who are failing to respond to a gluten free diet.
  2. Carrageenan can be absorbed into the bloodstream – especially those suffering with intestinal permeability (Leaky Gut). Once this happens, the immune system can trigger an attack. I commonly see patients who have allergic responses to carrageenan.
  3. Carrageenan can interact with you gut bacteria and promote inflammation.
  4. The FAO/WHO expert committee on food additives concluded the following – This quote is taken directly from the white paper – “based on the information available, it is inadvisable to use carrageenan or processed eucheuma seaweed in infant formulas”.

Answer This Question Honestly…

Does buying highly processed foods that need to be thickened with a highly processed seaweed extract contribute to good health? Honestly, you are far better off eating real food. The FDA has a long history of approving additives and chemicals that are known to contribute to poor health. If your goal is good health, and not just functional illness, this thickener is better left on the shelf. Always looking out for you, Dr. Osborne Additional Resources on Carrageenan and the inflammation link can be found below:  

26 Responses

  1. All dairy products that I have seen in stores have this in it now, even Whole Foods, last year they carried dairy without this additive. WOW, and they are supposed to be a healthy choice,hhhmmmmmmmm.

  2. Daisy dairy products, while not organic, do not use carageenan and are GMO-free ( so they say!) Otherwise one has to read labels.

    Keep in mind also that carageenan is used as part of wax sprays on many fruits and vegetables in grocers, even at Whole Foods. Trader Joe’s is hit or miss. If I cannot get ‘fresh’ fruit and veggies at a farmer’s market I buy frozen, which are usually not sprayed with a wax/carageenan mixture. Whole Foods has bought into the lie that carageenan is healthy because it comes from seaweed.

    Sometimes people believe they have allergies to certain fruits or veggies when the culprit can be waxes and/or carageenan. Try taking off skins for a while and see if symptoms improved. This helped me.

    1. Thanks for your input Di.
      Keep in mind that Daisy dairy products may be GMO free, but they are derived from cows being fed lots of grain. Their products are also being preserved using a method that can lead to casein mimicking gluten and stimulating a reaction.
      Food for thought 🙂
      All the best,
      Dr. O

    2. I cannot digest any bovine dairy products, but CAN enjoy raw goat dairy. It may be worth looking for a local farmer…

      1. I thought I was the only one who can’t eat cow dairy! I can eat any other dairy (goat, sheep, water buffalo) and people think this is so odd.

  3. Regarding the safety of carrageenan, there has been an amazing amount of misinformation being blogged about carrageenan being unsafe as a food ingredient. In spite of this misinformation, carrageenan continues as the safe food ingredient it has always been. If it were not, the principal regulatory agencies of the world (US FDA, FAO/WHO JECFA, EU EFSA, and Japan Ministry of Health) would not approve its use, and all of them give the necessary approvals. The only application restricted as a precautionary measure is stabilizing liquid infant formula and a definitive toxicology is about to be published that is expected to remove this restriction.
    Why all the concern about the safety of using carrageenan in foods? Starting in the 1960s there have been research studies showing that if excessive doses of carrageenan are consumed in animal trials inflammation can be induced in the small intestine. Likewise, inappropriate methods of introducing the carrageenan into the animals, i.e. in the animals’ only source of drinking water, have induced an inflammatory response in the small intestine. However, there has never been a validated inflammatory response in humans over the seventy plus years carrageenan has been used in foods. The anecdotal “upset tummies” reported in blogs as coming from consuming a food containing carrageenan are hardly
    reliable sources of information on the safety of carrageenan.
    Inflammatory responses in animals only occur when carrageenan can cross the blood membrane barrier of the small intestine. This only occurs when the extreme feeding conditions mentioned above are employed. Normal feeding regimes induce no such response.
    Over the last decade a group of molecular biologists at the University of Illinois at Chicago lead by Dr Joanne Tobacman have been exploring the in vitro interaction of carrageenan with various genes and conclude that carrageenan can cause inflammation in the gut via a binding mechanism involving TLR-4 receptors. This group also concluded that carrageenan degrades in the gut and the degraded carrageenan can permeate the membrane barrier. Recent studies refute both of these claims, and furthermore this recent research questions the validity using in vitro studies to mimic the in vivo events in the GI tract when a human consumes a food containing carrageenan.
    The bottom line on the safety issue is that in spite of all the efforts to downgrade or question the safety of carrageenan, particularly by bloggers, carrageenan is a safe food ingredient in all of the major regulatory jurisdictions of the world.

    1. Thanks for chiming in. With all due respect, I would say that your comment is quite biased considering the fact that you are the leading supplier of carrageenan in North America. The FDA and other agencies have approved a number of food additives that have later been researched to be much less safe than originally thought.
      I have personally seen a number of patients have severe adverse reactions to carrageenan. I would classify these reactions as much greater than “upset tummies”.

      If studies show that carrageenan only creates inflammation when intestinal permeability is present, how do you respond to the hundreds of thousands of consumers suffering with this gut affliction?

      There will always be studies on both sides of the fence. The fact that you choose to accept some but not all of them as a tool to market this additive further proves your bias. The article above does not demonize carrageenan. It simply asks the question – why would you want to eat a sea weed derived processed chemical that has the potential to cause inflammation?

    2. Really enough. You post this to every bloody website where carrageenan is mentioned.

      It is clear to both a growing number consumers and food manufacturers that for some reason people especially those w celiac or gluten sensitivity react to this as if they have had gluten. My own doctor’s child was getting sick after eating maki rolls despite GF soy sauce. She has no soy issue so I said it’s the seaweed, and it was. My brother and wife get sick anytime they eat ice cream with carrageenan. It is thankfully disappearing from dairy free milks and other products. Watch out folks for straight seaweed in canned beans or other red (agar) in things like sour cream and brown seaweed derivatives like algin or sodium/other alginates. Studies may say it’s safe and those of us bothered may not know the exact physiology impared or structure of seaweed causing GI and extra GI symptoms but the symptoms are very real and consistent.

      We know what’s happening and manufacturers do as well as it is being removed from most products. Even Nestles has removed it from its creamers and hopefully from their baby formulas!

      Finally, I knew a woman who hadn’t healed in 20+ years from celiac. She was eating candy when we talked that had made her sick – hard coating had carrageenan in it when I looked at ingredients! Stuff used to be in cookie sprinkles. This was the first year at Christmas I noticed they carrageenan had finally been removed from every jar of sprinkles I looked at.

    3. I’ve spend nearly half a century as a laboratory scientist, researcher and professor. I have read thousands of research reports and results can be skewed to conclude whatever the researchers decide to conclude. I know how scientists like to hang onto their pet theories. Whole batches of computational physics were rendered useless just because one of those scientists yelled louder than all the others. But that was geophysics. However, when it comes to food safety, wouldn’t it be more prudent to err on the side of caution? You are reading here and other places how people are reacting to this compound. Rather than protest too loudly, wouldn’t it be better to go back in the laboratory and figure out why so many gluten sensitive people are having this trouble and figuring out what would be better for them? I’ve watched this with my grandson myself (who is also gluten sensitive). One minute he’s a reasonable little boy and the next he’s out of control, hitting, screaming and running around destroying everything in his path. It was the only additive to his food that could have caused this. Not everyone is a scientist but I am and even though this wasn’t a controlled test, I would not risk giving this substance to anyone based on what I observed….

  4. I reject all cat foods that have carrageenan in it as I don’t want my 3 remaining kitties to develop cancer (3 already did and died). My husband keeps buying Dreyer’s ice cream that has this horrible ingredient in it. I won’t touch it, but then I’m off dairy all together now. I had bought some coconut milk at Trader Joe’s some months ago but returned it when I read the label more carefully – it had carrageenan and I wrote to them to suggest they remove it. Don’t know if they will. Why take the risk, people? Avoid it and stay safe.

  5. All the alternative milks at Starbucks have this in it. I thought I was getting dairy cross contamination but recently realized it was the carrageenan. It is hard to find lunch meat without it either. Even at whole foods or trader joes. Surprising.

    1. Trader Joe’s Organic Coconut Milk. (yellow label)
      Trader Joe’s Organic Coconut Cream. (blue label)
      It doesn’t say 100% certified organic, but the ingredients are: Organic coconut, water.

      You can easily make almond milk at home. No additives and tastes better.
      My wife and I make it all the time. Plus you have the left over meal to cook with.

      Just say NO to Carrageenan.

      This unneeded additive makes me sick. It feels like I have a HUGE opened up pine cone being shoved open end forward through my intestines. I stop eating it and the pain goes away. I’ve tested this many times. It happens every time I add it back into my diet.

      It causes my wife’s arthritis to flare up badly. She has tested it many times. She adds it back into her diet and in about 2 days her arthritis flares horribly. About 2 days after she removes it from her diet the flare up begins to subside. It happens every time.

      It throws my ASD granddaughter “out the window” for behavior.
      If she eats it everyone suffers. Every single time.

  6. Another negative effect of Carrageenan is that it can lead to increased viscosity or thickening of the blood, that is the so called “Roleaux effect” (platelet aggregation), where red blood cells stick together. Increased viscosity of the blood can cause impaired blood circulation, formation of blood clotting, and chronic inflammation. Yet another reason for staying away from Carrageenan.

  7. I’ve found carageenen in cottage cheeses, alternative milks and other products. Would rather avoid them then take the chance of any kind of reactions. READ LABELS and you’ll see some coconut/almond/cashew milks without it as well as Nancy’s cottage cheese does not have it. Strangely some of the Silk products do and others don’t. Also check out the organic Simple Truth labels in Kroger. Their alternative milks may not have it.

  8. Thank you for me any way this is new info. I am lactose intolerant & have just started Almond milk when l need to use milk for something. I used to use lactaid milk, but half gallon would go sour before l could use it all, couldn’t find qt. Size,WHAT do l do now? I am following Gluten free diet, since l have been diagnosed with Celiac disease. I thank you SO MUCH for the info. You send me.

  9. I am NEW at this, giving comments. I just got my tablet & am just learning how to use it. I entered my name & email, not sure what a web site is, but l am sure l don’t have one. SORRY l am so ignorant

  10. My friend just brought me Blue Diamond unsweetened Vanilla Almond Breeze Almond milk. NON GMO Almond milk, l don’t see this additive anywhere on the box, hope l am right. I thank all of you SO MUCH for all of the information l receive here, because of Dr. OSBORNE

  11. An important point, not mentioned so far in this thread, is that carageenan also causes migraines in some people. I have to be very careful eating out since it is often in sauces and dressings. Most recently I got a vicious 48 hour migraine from eating gluten free pizza. Could have been in the crust, the cheese, or the pepperoni. Not sure, but I didn’t used to get headaches from this restaurant. I have 2x now so maybe they changed their ingredients or I have become more sensitive. Anyway, I won’t eat there anymore. As for products from the grocery store, just read all labels. Most vegan dairy products contain carageenan but not all. If you get migraines consider carageenan as a factor. It took me a long time to identify the culprit, but once I did and started avoiding carageenan I can go many months without getting one now.

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