Baker cooks dinner with her daughter Megan at their home
in Bloomington, Illinois, February 19, 2013. Baker
avoids the food additive carrageenan, a seaweed-derived
texturizer found in meat, dairy and other processed
foods including some organic products.
ó Sara Baker says the light went on in her head after a cup
of hot cocoa set off a storm in her stomach.
went back and looked at the package and there it was:
carrageenan," said Baker, a career services coordinator
from Bloomington in central Illinois.
been taking medication for ulcerative colitis for years but
still suffered debilitating digestive flare-ups without
warning. She had read warnings about carrageenan in a natural
health newsletter but didnít take them seriously.
time, though, "it really clicked," she said of the
ingredient, which researchers say has not been conclusively
linked to gastrointestinal problems in humans. "It took
awhile to learn just how many things itís in, but now that
know, I can avoid it and I no longer have the problems."
like Bakerís have led some people with gastrointestinal
problems to sidestep mainstream medical advice and avoid
carrageenan, a seaweed-derived texturizer found in meat, dairy
and other processed foods ó including some organic products.
scientists, however, these are just anecdotes. Though studies
on lab animals and human cells have suggested that carrageenan
can cause gastrointestinal inflammation, many researchers and
physicians say itís unclear whether it has the same impact
on people who consume it.
at the University of Illinois at Chicago and University of
Chicago are seeking to address that question with a controlled
clinical trial that Baker is participating in.
believe itís worth investigating and doing the science to
find out," said Dr. Stephen Hanauer, a medical professor
and chief of gastroenterology and nutrition at University of
co-researcher, UIC physician and professor Joanne Tobacman,
has been looking at the health effects of carrageenan for more
than a decade and is concerned enough to have petitioned the
U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2008 to prohibit the use
of carrageenan in food.
petition cited decades of publicly funded, peer-reviewed
science ó including her own ó on carrageenan-induced
inflammation in animals and cells. In June, the FDA responded
with a letter of denial.
was disappointing that with such clear evidence about the
effects of carrageenan on inflammation, the FDA did not
restrict the use of carrageenan, particularly in infant
formula," Tobacman said. Europe does not allow the
ingredient in formula.
additive, which lends a uniform, creamy texture to food, can
be found in soy milk, yogurt, ice cream, cheeses, some meats,
diet soft drinks and even toothpaste.
Adams, deputy director of the FDAís Office of Food Additive
Safety, said the petition did not make a compelling case to
re-examine the safety of carrageenan. "It has been
reviewed repeatedly by FDA scientists and other international
organizations, and in the judgment of those experts there hasnít
been a problem," he said.
called a rat study from 2006 "the gold standard for us
because it exactly mimics the exposure consumers are going to
get when they eat these carrageenan-containing foods."
study was funded and performed by a manufacturer of
carrageenan. Adams said he didnít know that but added:
"If you look at the science and you believe itís well
done it doesnít matter where the money comes from."
Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based organic industry
watchdog group, on released a report on carrageenan called
"How a Natural Food Additive Is Making Us Sick."
Vallaeys, Cornucopiaís director of food policy, said the
group felt "an ethical obligation" to raise
awareness. "If government agencies werenít going to
protect consumers, then it seemed we needed to let consumers
know about this so they could protect themselves."
institute also is challenging the FDAís denial of Tobacmanís
petition. Among other objections, Cornucopiaís letter to the
agency asks why officials did not consider any studies on
carrageenan published in the last four years.
said the FDAís scientific evaluation in response to the
petition was finished in May 2009, after which it spent more
than three years in what he calls the "administrative
infant formula, Adams said Europe takes a different approach
to food additives than the U.S., sometimes banning a substance
when toxicity studies raise concerns but are not conclusive.
"The Europeans do their business that way but we donít,"
he said. "We would base it more on the science we have
rather than waiting for science to be developed."
the Chicago researchers proceed with their work and advocates
seek federal action, some consumers and activists have made an
impact on their own by lobbying manufacturers directly to
phase out the ingredient.
month Stonyfield joined a number of manufacturers who have
removed or have pledged to remove carrageenan from their
organic products. Organic Valley says it has removed the
ingredient from most food items but is still working on
reformulations for soy milk, chocolate milk and one version of
its whipping cream.
representative of the organic dairy company Horizon Organic
and soy milk maker Silk (each majority owned by Dean Foods)
said both view carrageenan as safe and would not comment on
any plans to remove it.
National Organic Standards Board reapproved the use of
carrageenan in most organic foods last year but decided to
prohibit its use in organic infant formula.
manufacturers, the FDA, the United Nations food additives
committee and some scientists say it is safe, as evidenced by
centuries of use.
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International, a Brussels-based trade association representing
producers of carrageenan, notes in an online statement that
the U.N. additives committee has approved the use of
carrageenan without a specific limit ó with the exception of
the studies the panel looked at, Marinalg said, was "a
valuable, scientifically critical literature review" of
carrageenan by Dr. Samuel Cohen and Nobuyuki Ito. The fact
that Marinalg funded the 2002 report did not influence the
"thorough and sound" review, according to Cohen, a
physician and professor of medicine at the University of
McKim, chief scientific officer at the toxicological research
firm CeeTox Inc., says industry-funded science is not unusual
and should be taken seriously. Marinalg recently hired McKim
to review the last 30 years of carrageenan safety studies. His
paper isnít yet published, but he says it will affirm
Tribune asked Marinalg and McKim if they were aware of any
peer-reviewed scientific research that supported the safety of
carrageenan but was not performed by industry-funded
scientists. They agreed to look but provided no examples after
three weeks. The Tribune made a similar request to the FDA,
which also provided no immediate examples.
Tobacman published a scientific review in a National Institute
of Health journal suggesting that consumption of carrageenan
in lab animals was associated with "intestinal
ulcerations" and tumors. She concluded that the
"widespread use of carrageenan in the Western diet should
the acute reaction it triggers in some, Tobacman said in a
recent email, carrageenan may also promote low levels of
chronic internal inflammation, a factor linked to common
chronic disorders such as diabetes, atherosclerosis and
many gastroenterologists are not convinced carrageenan is
are some studies in rats and mice showing that carrageenan
exposure can lead to GI inflammation that mimics things like
Crohnís" disease, said Dr. Sunanda Kane, a Mayo Clinic
physician and medical adviser to the Crohnís and Colitis
Foundation of America. "But itís never been shown on
human tissue in humans walking around."
last 50 years, incidence of inflammatory bowel disease has
risen as people eat more processed food, Kane said. "But
is it carrageenan or that we donít exercise or have lots of
other additives and preservatives or fructose in our food
Hanauer and Tobacmanís study, people whose ulcerative
colitis is in remission are being put on a carrageenan-free
diet, then given either a controlled dose of carrageenan or a
the research has been hampered by low volunteer rates ó
currently, fewer than 20 subjects. Hanauer notes that the
prospect of re-inflaming oneís inactive ulcerative colitis
is not particularly attractive.
Baker, who was one of more than 120 people who responded when
Cornucopia asked to hear from those with carrageenan-related
digestive problems, said she was willing to go through it to
help establish human science on the topic.
believe there are people who are as sick as I was, or even
worse, who need this information," she said.