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Ask the Diet Doctor: Is Carrageenan Okay to Eat?

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Q: My friend told me to stop eating my favorite yogurt because it has carrageenan in it. Is she right?

A: Carrageenan is a compound extracted from red seaweed that is added to improve the texture and mouth feel of foods. Its widespread use as an additive in foods began in the 1930s, initially in chocolate milk, and now it is found in yogurt, ice cream, soy milk, almond milk, deli meats, and meal replacement shakes.

For decades different groups and scientists have been trying to get the FDA to ban carrageenan as a food additive due to potential damage that it can cause to the digestive tract. More recently, this argument has been reignited with a consumer report and petition by the advocacy and food policy research group Cornucopia entitled, "How a Natural Food Additive Is Making Us Sick."

However, the FDA has yet to reopen the review on the safety of carrageenan, citing that there is no new data to be considered. The FDA doesn’t seem to be acting stubborn here, as just last year they considered and subsequently rejected a petition by Joanne Tobacman, M.D., a professor at the University of Illinois, to ban carrageenan. Dr. Tobacman has been researching the additive and its impacts on inflammation and inflammatory diseases in animals and cells for the last 10 years.

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Companies such as Stonyfield and Organic Valley have removed or are removing carrageenan from their products, while others such White Wave Foods (which owns Silk and Horizon Organic) do not see a risk with carrageenan consumptions at the level found in foods and do not have plans to reformulate their products with a different thickener.

What should you do? Right now there really isn’t any data in humans that shows it poses adverse health effects. However, there is animal and cell culture data that does suggest it could cause damage to your gut and exacerbate inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease. For some people, the red flags from the animal data is enough to warrant removal from their diet, while others would prefer to see these same negative findings in human studies before swearing off a particular ingredient.

This is an individual decision. One of the great things about food in America is that we have a myriad of choices. Personally, I don’t think the data at this point warrants the time to check labels and buy carrageenan-free products. With the increased buzz surrounding carrageenan, I’m sure we’ll have additional research in humans in the future to give us a more definitive answer.

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