Carrageenan conflict thickens

As approval for carrageenan expires, advocacy groups push the USDA National Organic Program to discontinue approval for the emulsifier in organic foods.

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) urged the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) to ban the use of carrageenan in all organic products, according to a release yesterday. The controversial emulsifier, made from seaweed, is a common food additive and has been allowed in organic foods. Some research, however, has suggested the stuff causes gastroinstestinal inflammation and higher rates of colon cancer, according to the OCA.

Under NOP rules, carrageenan's approval is scheduled to expire, or sunset. The NOP is recommending another five years of approval for the ingredient. Their action is inflaming the folks at OCA and at the Cornucopia Institute, who have been warning the public about carrageenan for years.

“Carrageenan should not be allowed in infant formula or any other organic food,” said Ronnie Cummins, National Director of the OCA, in a release. “And we can't allow the organic program to be constrained by the opinions of the FDA on food safety. After all, this is the agency that insists it's OK to eat olestra, saccharin, trans fats, aspartame, MSG, nitrates and parabens.”

The OCA notes a collection of scientific studies that suggests links between carrageenan and gastrointestinal inflammation, including cancer. In 2008, according to their release, the FDA rejected a petition filed by Dr. Joanne Tobacman, a physician-researcher at the University of Illinois, Chicago College of Medicine, who has been studying food-grade carrageenan for more than a decade. "The FDA's justification for denial was based on a sloppy and incomplete evaluation of available published research, and it was riddled with overt bias which appears to protect an industry's profits at the expense of public health," says Charlotte Vallaeys, of Cornucopia, on "We have asked them to reevaluate."

"Carrageenan has a unique chemical structure, and research has shown it may trigger an innate immune response in the body," Pradeep Dudeja, Professor of Physiology in Medicine at the University of Illinois, Chicago, co-author of nine studies on carrageenan, said in the same article. "The immune response leads to inflammation, which is a serious public health concern since chronic, low-grade inflammation is a well-known precursor to more serious diseases, including heart disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes and cancer.”

Marinalg International, the organization supporting sustainable seaweed farming and the seaweed based hydrocolloid industry, disagrees. “The basis for the NOP’s Proposed Rule to continue carrageenan use without restriction is the result of a comprehensive review of science providing strong evidence concluding that the processing and production of carrageenan from red seaweed is non-synthetic,“ the group puts forth in a release. The FDA has “rejected the conclusions of some recent experiments with isolated cells that allege adverse health effects and rely instead on well-established science that more closely mimics the way human beings consume carrageenan in foods as a natural stabilizer, gelling agent and emulsifier,“ according to the release.

William B. Matakas, president of Marinalg, said, “We are gratified that after thorough reviews by the FDA and the USDA, carrageenan continues to be recognized as a safe and important ingredient in organic foods in the United States. Carrageenan is consumed by millions of families throughout the world each and every day and has been for a very long time. The experience of that continued use, coupled with careful science, is clear evidence that carrageenan is worthy of its place in organic milk, ice cream and other food products.”

Stonyfield Farm and Eden Foods have committed to removing the ingredient from their products, while other organic brands like Horizon and Silk have not.

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