Chasing Carrageenan

On one of my many trips to the neighborhood health clinic, driven to its basement exam rooms by the unexplained, as-yet-undiagnosed compulsive vomiting that had taken over my life, I was given a piece of friendly advice by the young intern who listened to my catalog of symptoms and complaints. “Maybe you should try not eating dairy.”

I wanted to scream at her. Did she really think that these extreme, peculiar symptoms were because my tummy didn’t like ice cream? A few months later I would learn what was causing the digestive trouble – Crohn’s disease – and I haven’t detected that dairy has anything to do with my symptoms.

A few months ago my mother sent me an article about a woman whose Ulcerative Colitis was prompted to flare by the common additive carrageenan. There have been studies indicating that this seaweed extract, in the form that is used as an emulsifier in creamy foods, can prompt inflammation in animals. Of course, it has its defenders, including carrageenan harvesters/processers, and corporations that include it in their food.

I read the article, thought “I should probably avoid that” and didn’t give it much more thought. Occasionally I’d read labels on almond milk and buy the ones that didn’t have carrageenan. But I’ve never been convinced that my symptoms have as easy an answer as eliminating a particular food.

Last week while visiting my parents I didn’t feel well, and I kept walking by a note in my father’s handwriting which he must have written down after reading that same article. On the back of an old business card it simply read “CARRAGEENAN” in all caps.

So I thought, why not cut it out, how hard could it be?

Things came to a head a few days later when I read the ingredients list our tube of toothpaste. Carrageenan. Crap.

Lime sorbetLater that day on a trip to get frozen yogurt I read the ingredients lists post on the wall. All of the frozen yogurts had carrageenan. My only option was raspberry lime sorbet. I don’t even like sorbet. I ate a dollop and pouted the whole time, aware of how absurd I looked.

The next day while I was out for the first good run I’d had in weeks, I realized what it was that made me want to flip over the toppings bar at the frozen yogurt place. It wasn’t about sorbet, it was about control, or lack thereof. It was about feeling betrayed by a world that I had always assumed would keep me healthy. It was about knowing the world is full of things that can make us sick, and that there is very little we can do about it.

I kept running, faster and faster, because I felt good that day. I decided that I could handle the inconvenience of reading labels even more closely than I already do. Each footfall on the hot summer pavement brought me a little bit farther from my blissful ignorance, and a little bit closer to the new way of life that I hope can keep me healthy.

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12 Responses to Chasing Carrageenan

  1. Mo says:

    I hope you are able to find your triggers, and feel better! I read labels somewhat carefully (mostly for BHT and MSG, and oats because my son is allergic), but I don’t have to read them to keep my family feeling good. I couldn’t imagine going through this. A dear friend of mine has Lyme disease and has been on a very strict diet for 2 years, he really can only eat a handfull of things. It’s amazing to think that foods that are meant to keep us healthy and alive can hurt us. It’s even worse that there are all these other things added to processed foods that dont really need to be there, and can add to making us feel sick.
    I had a slight intolerance to dairy a few years ago, now I’m wondering if its a carrageenan issue, since it wasn’t all dairy that bothered me.

    • felicemifa says:

      Thanks so much, Mo! It’s just so tough to go from not having to think about it at all, to having to be so careful about reading labels. I’m sure I look like a nut in the grocery store.

  2. Thank you Margaret. Thank you so much.

  3. Well, after four years living with celiac disease (more than four years since I was diagnosed, that is), I certainly understand the frustration that comes from having to always read labels and be very, very careful. My two younger kids have adapted well, too, though it’s not always easy. My daughter is enjoying the fact that her English III AP class has to read “Fast Food Nation” this summer. It grosses them out, but she can’t eat any of it, anyway. 😉

    I have a friend who can’t handle MSG and inverted proteins and similar stuff. Gets massive migraines when he gets dosed. Carageenan is on the list of things he can’t eat.

    Mostly just empathizing. It’s not easy when you have a chronic disease. And having to be very careful about what you eat adds to the stress.

    Take care. Hopefully your experiment eliminating that from your diet will be conclusive one way or another.

    • felicemifa says:

      Thanks – it’s nice to be reminded that people manage to scrutinize their food choices all the time, and that it’s not the end of the world. It’s quite overwhelming to realize how many items that look “simple” at the store are actually packed with crazy extra ingredients.

      • Val says:

        All of this is MUCH easier in California. You’ll figure it out, figure out what TYPES of processed foods to avoid, which brands are consistant, etc. You’ll also probably have to learn how to cook around this. Not sure how Trader Joe’s is on this, but they are one of my favorites. My mother said Whole Foods back there isn’t as good as it us here. I have a laundry list of weird food allergies. Welcome to a whole different world. This will make or strain relationships and you will hate major holidays. There really are two types of people — those who get this and those who don’t. Often the fix is simple like — in your case — dressing on the side for salad. I’m sorry. I get it.

  4. Roberta Morton says:

    Hi Margaret,
    Great article- I’m reading it on a day that I am sooooo frustrated with my ulcerative colitis I could scream. I had always believed that I was lactose intolerant ( maybe still am ) but how the heck can you narrow down all these things . It seems modern medicine ( doctors ) should have more of a handle or interest in this.
    God Bless, Roberta Morton

  5. shewhispers says:

    Watch “boneless” chicken closely, as big food injects carrageenan into it, even in raw packs at the grocery story (HEB store brand has been carrageenan-free so far, but Kroger’s store brand has it injected into their “boneless” chicken)! Of course, I avoid all restaurant boneless chicken, because most servers have no idea if carrageenan has been injected into their product. Luckily, bone-in chicken must give the injector machines a difficult time.

    Also watch deli meat — including non-poultry deli meats (I’ve occasionally seen it in some deli hams). Good luck!

    • felicemifa says:

      My father just mentioned this to me too – I’m vegetarian, so I hadn’t given it much thought, but he’s been trying to find meats without it and has been frustrated.

  6. Debbie says:


    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.
    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!searchResults;rpp=25;po=0;s=FDA-2008-P-0347

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