Carrageenan, a family of marine polysaccharides isolated from seaweeds, has been at the center of considerable debate in recent years. Generally recognized as safe (GRAS) as a food ingredient, carrageenan use dates back hundreds of years, mostly utilized for its thickening and gelling properties. Being plant derived, it’s allowed in vegan foods. And in the US, it can be included in organic foods.

Earlier this year, the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) decided against the recommendation of its own National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and renewed carrageenan’s status on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List), according to an April 4, 2018, posting in the Federal Register. The ruling means carrageenan, which is not certified organic, may continue to be used in organic food items.

Consumers Union, the Washington-based advocacy division of Consumer Reports, disagreed with the ruling. Many organic consumers feel the same, which is why brands such as Applegate have decided to move forward with removing the controversial ingredient in its poultry deli meat.

“We’re proud to be a brand that not only listens to consumer feedback, but a brand that takes action on that feedback,” says Nicole Glenn, vice president of marketing with Applegate, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods Corp. “Carrageenan is an ingredient Applegate consumers said they wanted removed from our poultry deli meat, so when we developed a way to replace it and improve the taste of those varieties, it was an easy decision to move forward with a carrageenan-free recipe.

“Although the USDA overruled the recommendation from the NOSB to remove carrageenan from the list of approved ingredients by the end 2018, we’re moving ahead and taking it out of both our organic and natural poultry deli meat varieties,” Glenn says. “We’ve never been the type of brand to take the easy way out. We required a no antibiotics policy for the farms we source our meat from long before any government agency stepped in.”

The National Organic Program (NOP) is part of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). The NOP also disagreed with NOSB’s ruling. Carrageenan suppliers and various organic food and beverage manufacturers were pleased.

“AMS found sufficient evidence in public comments to the NOSB that carrageenan continues to be necessary for handling agricultural products because of the unavailability of wholly natural substitutes,” the AMS stated. “Carrageenan has specific uses in an array of agricultural products, and public comments reported that potential substitutes do not adequately replicate the functions of carrageenan across the broad scope of use. Therefore, carrageenan continues to meet the (Organic Foods Production Act) criteria for inclusion on the National List.”

An independent survey of food formulation professionals confirmed that carrageenan was the most accepted ingredient for certain foods, according to DuPont Nutrition & Health, Wilmington, Del. Carrageenan, for example, is the only approved non-synthetic stabilizer allowed for use in U.S. liquid organic infant formula.

“We commend the USDA for taking seriously its responsibility to review the NOSB recommendation and make a decision based on the facts and science,” said Michiel van Genugten, global product line manager-seaweed extracts and colors, for DuPont Nutrition & Health after the ruling. “This will allow organic food producers to continue to use a safe, versatile ingredient they rely on, and for consumers to enjoy the foods they know and love.”

Public comments in favor of carrageen remaining on the National List included:

  • Carrageenan is sustainably harvested and readily available;
  • Reformulation that eliminates carrageenan may alter color, odor and taste in some products as well as add costs;
  • Seaweed farming uses no arable land, freshwater, chemical treatments or fertilizers;
  • Carrageenan farming has been shown to provide economic benefits to communities in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Prior to the ruling, several researchers collaborated on a review of the science behind the carrageenan controversy. Their analysis was published in the March 2018 issue of Food & Function. The review provides an overview of carrageenan’s functional characteristics and its impact on digestion, along with various gaps in understanding. Specifically, three unresolved gaps are identified. Firstly, little information can be found on the current levels of public exposure to carrageenan. Secondly, the link between carrageenan’s physicochemical properties, its impact on digestive proteolysis, the colon microbiome and inflammation are yet to be fully resolved. Thirdly, scant scientific evidence exists on the differential digestive fate of carrageenan in the gut of liable and predisposed populations, such as elderly people or inflammatory bowel disease patients. Altogether, revisiting the scientific evidence indicates that more research is needed to elucidate the possibility that continued exposure to increasing levels of carrageenan in the human diet may compromise human health and well-being.

The controversy, therefore, remains an open book.