It’s an argument that has gone on for years now – is carrageenan truly safe, or does it cause cancer?

If you take a keen interest in food science and nutrition, it is quite likely that you have heard about carrageenan and the controversy that surrounds it. If not, where have you been?

Firstly, it is important to understand what carrageenan actually is. A certain type of red seaweed is boiled, filtered, dehydrated and then finely chopped into a powder, which is then packaged and sold. It is used for a whole range of purposes, from thickening low fat foods to making them last longer or stopping ingredients separating. More can be found out here.

However, some believe that it can cause cancer, which has led to panic and confusion over whether or not it is okay for you and I to eat.

Much of this is fuelled by the findings of Dr Joanne Tobacman, a scientist who has researched the subject of carrageenan safety for many years. She claims that carrageenan can cause cancer when consumed by humans, however, the FDA body doesn’t certify her findings.

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Immediately this statement breeds thoughts of a corrupt food governing body, which is ignoring sound science and serving the giants of the industry over the general public. Rest assured that this is not the case.

The FDA may not be perfect, however in this case, they are right to dismiss Dr Tobacman’s findings for a number of reasons.

Firstly, many of her studies actually are conducted using the wrong carrageenan. Poligeenan is a similar product made with harsh acid, which used to be known as “degraded carrageenan” hence the confusion. Many of Tobacman’s earlier studies used poligeenan rather than carrageenan. Poligeenan is never used in the food industry because the way it is processed renders it unsafe. Carrageenan however is not treated with acid and therefore the research is inapplicable.

Furthermore, the way she administered carrageenan to the animals tested upon did not accurately simulate the way it is digested in humans. In some cases she used large amounts of the stuff, sometimes it would be suspended in water rather than attached to the proteins in food, and it was even injected into animals’ bloodstreams on occasion.

Carrageenan is used in small quantities and attaches itself to proteins in food, not in abundance with water. Also, carrageenan has no dangers as it never enters the bloodstream; it passes through the digestive system with no impact. None of these emulate its use in food, and therefore parallels cannot be drawn.

It is fairly clear that Dr Tobacman’s studies are not a fair reflection of carrageenan’s safety. Next time you hear a rumor about food safety, be sure to look up the science behind it, as there is a lot of misinformation out there.

Organic food companies are keen to spread fear of food additives to make more money out of their products, and so-called “nutrition experts” with popular blogs often have hidden agendas too. Make your own mind up using the actual science behind the rumor rather than believing everything you see or hear online.