Unraveling the Carrageenan Controversy: Exploring a Common Food Additive

A Closer Look at Carrageenan

Carrageenan

Carrageenan, derived from seaweed, is a widely used food additive found in a variety of products. While its origins may sound appealing, it is crucial to delve into the complexities of this ingredient.

A Seaweed Story

Carrageenan comes from edible red seaweed, a source known for its abundant trace minerals and nutritional value. For centuries, traditional Irish kitchens have used “Carraigín” from Irish Moss to create delicious pudding-like desserts. When cooked, carrageenan takes on a pleasing, gel-like texture, making it a popular choice as a thickener in pâté-style canned pet foods.

From Natural Beginnings to Industrial Extraction

However, the carrageenan we encounter today is far removed from its picturesque origins. The industrial production process involves extracting carrageenan using potent alkaline solvents.

The Controversy Unveiled

Food-grade carrageenan, also known as “undegraded” carrageenan, is considered safe and is included in the FDA’s “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) list. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regards it as an acceptable emulsifier, stabilizer, and thickener in pet food. Carrageenan is not limited to pet food; it can be found in various products like beer, ice cream, jelly, diet soda, yogurt, toothpaste, shampoo, and even gel air fresheners. It is used as a vegan-friendly alternative to gelatin and can also be present in organic foods. However, the European Union prohibits its use in infant formulas.

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A Tale of Two Carrageenans

It is important to differentiate between carrageenan and poligeenan, also known as “degraded” carrageenan. Poligeenan has undergone a breakdown process, resulting in smaller fragments. Scientifically, it is used to induce inflammation in animal experiments and is not permitted in food due to its cancer-causing properties.

The Safety Debate

Carrageenan producers, veterinary nutritionists, and pet food manufacturers argue that food-grade carrageenan is entirely safe for pets. However, the reality is more nuanced. Even food-grade carrageenan is not completely pure; it contains a small percentage of smaller fragments known to cause inflammation and potential harm.

The Inflammatory Link

Research has shown that carrageenan triggers the production of a cytokine called Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNF-⍺), an intercellular messenger molecule. While TNF-⍺ stimulates inflammation and promotes apoptosis (cell death), which is essential for maintaining immune system balance and fighting pathogens, it is also implicated in chronic inflammatory diseases, asthma, autoimmune disorders, and cancer.

Mixed Results and Controversial Conclusions

Numerous studies have explored the effects of carrageenan in animals, yielding varying outcomes. Conclusions often depend on the funding source, leading to differing opinions. Notably, Dr. Joanne Tobacman’s extensive research over two decades on carrageenan’s impact on the intestinal lining has faced criticism from the carrageenan industry. Nevertheless, she remains convinced that both food-grade carrageenan and degraded carrageenan contribute to inflammation, carcinogenic effects, increased free radicals, intestinal inflammation, disruption of insulin metabolism, and a potential role in cancer development.

The Unique Feline Factor

Considering the highly acidic environment of the feline stomach, one wonders if carrageenan poses a greater risk to cats compared to humans. Could it be a contributing factor to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), food intolerance, and the rising rates of cancer and diabetes among cats?

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Addressing Radioactive Concerns

Some have expressed concerns about carrageenan potentially being contaminated by radioactivity due to its oceanic origins, especially in light of the Fukushima nuclear reactor incident. However, current production primarily comes from South American countries like Peru, Chile, and Argentina, which are largely shielded from the radioactive plume circulating in the northern hemisphere. Nonetheless, seaweed harvested in the north remains at risk of contamination.

The Current Landscape

Despite newer research suggesting potential issues with carrageenan, the FDA shows little interest in reassessing its safety. As for other stakeholders, including the pet food industry, maintaining the status quo seems to be the priority.

The Power of Consumer Choice

While complete avoidance of carrageenan in numerous products might be challenging, consumers and pet parents have the power to make informed decisions with their wallets. It is plausible that carrageenan could contribute to various health issues in both animals and humans. Making an effort to minimize its consumption might be a worthwhile endeavor.

References

  • Bhattacharyya S, Dudeja PK, Tobacman JK. Tumor necrosis factor alpha-induced inflammation is increased but apoptosis is inhibited by common food additive carrageenan. J Biol Chem. 2010 Dec 10;285(50):39511-22.
  • Bhattacharyya S, Dudeja PK, Tobacman JK. Carrageenan-induced NFkappaB activation depends on distinct pathways mediated by reactive oxygen species and Hsp27 or by Bcl10. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2008 Jul-Aug;1780(7-8):973-82.
  • Bhattacharyya S, O-Sullivan I, Katyal S, Unterman T, Tobacman JK. Exposure to the common food additive carrageenan leads to glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and inhibition of insulin signalling in HepG2 cells and C57BL/6J mice. Diabetologia. 2012 Jan;55(1):194-203.
  • Borsani B, De Santis R, Perico V, et al. The Role of Carrageenan in Inflammatory Bowel Diseases and Allergic Reactions: Where Do We Stand? Nutrients. 2021;13(10):3402.
  • Cohen S, Ito N. A critical review of the toxicological effects of carrageenan and processed eucheuma seaweed on the gastrointestinal tract. Critical Reviews in Toxicology. 2002;32(5) 413-444.
  • Pogozhykh, Denys et al. “Experimental Evaluation of Food-Grade Semi-Refined Carrageenan Toxicity.” International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2021 Oct 16;22(20): 11178.
  • Tobacman JK. Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2001 Oct;109(10):983-94.
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