Carrageenan & Friends: Gummy Troublemakers

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As a general rule, the less processed a food is and the more “whole” it is the better. Food products are becoming pretty ubiquitous these days, as the food industry combines more and more things to create food like substances that keep up with changing trends and food fads. One of the most recent and widely used are a family of substances that serve as binding and thickening agents. Carrageenan, guar gum, xantham gum (and others) are infiltrating foods everywhere around us, making food more viscous, stabilizing different ingredients, thickening things and binding stuff together. On the surface they sound pretty handy but unfortunately it seems these extracted substances are irritating bodies in the process.

There is growing concern over the use of these gums in foods and for just reason. Specifically, research has been focusing on the potential damaging properties of carrageenan on the digestive tract. In general, these substances may be irritating to the intestines and cause a number of problems, including stomach upset, problems digesting or absorbing nutrients and compromising intestinal barrier stability. Anything that messes with the intestine is a bad thing and should be looked at critically.

Many people have ignored the concerns over these gums, stating their natural/organic origins (e.g. carrageenan is derived from seaweed) and the lack of “research” proving their harm. As many of you know, this isn’t good enough in people’s health. Any new food has the burden of proof of innocence. It needs to be used for quite some time before it gets anything resembling a free pass. Things that are used heavily by the food industry to create foods that couldn’t be created without them are also very suspect to me. Add in the growing number of people experiencing problems with these gumming agents and I think we need to proceed with caution. Maybe these substances will prove to be perfectly safe but until the case is closed I would rather stay away from them.

The Bare 5 Bottom Line on Carrageenan & Friends:
Staying away from food products with gums in them is likely in your best interest. Since only food products might contain them, they aren’t too difficult to avoid if you’re focusing on real, whole foods as the base of your diet. Do watch out for them as they are hidden in almost everything these days, including things you wouldn’t expect.

**Gelatin is NOT the same as these gums and is fine to consume.**

Thanks for reading, have a great gum free day.

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4 comments

  1. SO MUCH FOR THE MYTHS
    CONSIDER THE FACTS ON CARRAGEENAN FOR A CHANGE

    Q. What is Carrageenan??

    A. Carrageenan is a naturally-occurring seaweed extract. It is widely used in foods and non-foods to improve texture and stability. Common uses include meat and poultry, dairy products, canned pet food, cosmetics and toothpaste.
    Q. Why the controversy?
    A. Self-appointed consumer watchdogs have produced numerous web pages filled with words condemning carrageenan as an unsafe food additive for human consumption. However, in 70+ years of carrageenan being used in processed foods, not a single substantiated claim of an acute or chronic disease has been reported as arising from carrageenan consumption. On a more science-based footing, food regulatory agencies in the US, the EU, and in the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) repeatedly review and continue to approve carrageenan as a safe food additive.
    Q. What has led up to this misrepresentation of the safety of an important food stabilizer, gelling agent and thickener?
    A. It clearly has to be attributed to the research of Dr. Joanne Tobacman, an Associate Prof at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She and a group of molecular biologists have accused carrageenan of being a potential inflammatory agent as a conclusion from laboratory experiments with cells of the digestive tract. It requires a lot of unproven assumptions to even suggest that consumption of carrageenan in the human diet causes inflammatory diseases of the digestive tract. The objectivity of the Chicago research is also flawed by the fact that Dr Tobacman has tried to have carrageenan declared an unsafe food additive on weak technical arguments that she broadcast widely a decade before the University of Chicago research began.

    Q. What brings poligeenan into a discussion of carrageenan?
    A. Poligeenan (“degraded carrageenan” in pre-1988 scientific and regulatory publications) is a possible carcinogen to humans; carrageenan is not. The only relationship between carrageenan and poligeenan is that the former is the starting material to make the latter. Poligeenan is not a component of carrageenan and cannot be produced in the digestive tract from carrageenan-containing foods.
    Q. What are the differences between poligeenan and carrageenan?
    A. The production process for poligeenan requires treating carrageenan with strong acid at high temp (about that of boiling water) for 6 hours or more. These severe processing conditions convert the long chains of carrageenan to much shorter ones: ten to one hundred times shorter. In scientific terms the molecular weight of poligeenan is 10,000 to 20,000; whereas that of carrageenan is 200,000 to 800,000. Concern has been raised about the amount of material in carrageenan with molecular weight less than 50,000. The actual amount (well under 1%) cannot even be detected accurately with current technology. Certainly it presents no threat to human health.
    Q. What is the importance of these molecular weight differences?
    A. Poligeenan contains a fraction of material low enough in molecular weight that it can penetrate the walls of the digestive tract and enter the blood stream. The molecular weight of carrageenan is high enough that this penetration is impossible. Animal feeding studies starting in the 1960s have demonstrated that once the low molecular weight fraction of poligeenan enters the blood stream in large enough amounts, pre-cancerous lesions begin to form. These lesions are not observed in animals fed with a food containing carrageenan.

    Q. Does carrageenan get absorbed in the digestive track?
    A. Carrageenan passes through the digestive system intact, much like food fiber. In fact, carrageenan is a combination of soluble and insoluble nutritional fiber, though its use level in foods is so low as not to be a significant source of fiber in the diet.
    Summary
    Carrageenan has been proven completely safe for consumption. Poligeenan is not a component of carrageenan.
    Closing Remarks
    The consumer watchdogs with their blogs and websites would do far more service to consumers by researching their sources and present only what can be substantiated by good science. Unfortunately we are in an era of media frenzy that rewards controversy.
    Additional information available:
    On June 11th, 2008, Dr. Joanne Tobacman petitioned the FDA to revoke the current regulations permitting use of carrageenan as a food additive.
    On June 11th, 2012 the FDA denied her petition, categorically addressing and ultimately dismissing all of her claims; their rebuttal supported by the results of several in-depth, scientific studies.
    If you would like to read the full petition and FDA response, they can be accessed at http://www.regulations.gov/#!searchResults;rpp=25;po=0;s=FDA-2008-P-0347

    • Debbie, thanks for the extensive link, it is much of the same information I came across when looking at carrageenan. Unfortunately I still don’t believe it to be a smart substance to consume. Anytime you extract something out of a substance, whether its naturally occurring or not, gives me pause. In seaweed I think it has a place. Used in Half & Half, yogurt, and other food products is where I think it’s out of place. Saying it’s not a problem is fine but I still want people to consider not consuming it.

  2. Debbie Young works for Ingredient Solutions Inc., the world’s largest independent supplier of carrageenan, by the way. Those are her company’s FAQ talking points she copied and pasted into this comments section. She does this on every blog that even mentions carrageenan and questions its safety…

    • Thanks Melissa- it did strike me as a very automatic, generic and unproductive response but maybe that makes sense… Goes to show you why checking the source behind food safety claims might be a fruitful activity, particularly when they are used to defend the innocence of something on the newer, industrial side of the food supply.

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