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Carrageenan Gum

What is carrageenan gum? Structure and Properties

Carrageenan is a soluble fiber extracted from Irish moss (Chondrus crispus) or red marine algae (seaweeds) [1]. It is a mixture of indigestible carbohydrates, polysaccharides composed mainly of galactose. Carrageenan cannot be digested by human intestinal enzymes and probably not broken down (fermented) by beneficial large intestinal bacteria, so it is not likely absorbed and probably provides no calories [1].

Based on its gelling ability, carrageenan is divided into three commercial classes: kappa (rigid), iota (soft) and lambda (form gels only if mixed with proteins).

Carrageenan

Picture 1. Red algae are one of the main sources of carrageenan
(source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons licence)

Carrageenan in Foods

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows the use of ammonium, calcium, potassium and sodium carrageenan in foods [3].

Carrageenan may be used as a thickener and emulsifier in chocolate milk, almond milk, coconut milk, soy milk, coffee, hot cereal beverages, ice creams, yogurts, cottage cheese, whipping creams, fruit jellies, soft drinks, ham, salad dressings, sauces, infant formulas, dried pasta products, pate, processed meats, fish products, vegetarian hot dogs, liquid and frozen egg products, salt substitutes, sugars and syrups, beer and fermented vegetables. It can be also used in medicines, laxatives, toothpastes, shampoos, personal lubricants.

In the European Union, carrageenan is labeled as E number E407, and Processed Eucheuma Seaweed (PES), which is a semi-refined carrageenan mixed with cellulose, as E number E407a [4].

Carrageenan Supplements

Possible Health Benefits of Carrageenan Supplements

There is INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE about carrageenan supplements effectiveness in prevention or treatment of cough, bronchitis, tuberculosis, peptic ulcers, constipation, other intestinal problems, or in promoting weight loss [5].

Carrageenan Safety: Side Effects and Dangers

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), undegraded or food-grade carrageenan is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) for use in foods [2], but the same FDA has suggested further investigations of its safety [6]. The problem is that food-rated (undegraded) carrageenan might become degraded and thus cancer-forming (cancerogenous) during the food processing or breakdown in the human stomach [1], but currently there is no evidence that carrageenan would cause cancer in humans [10,12].

Side effects. There seems to be no reports of any significant side effects of carrageenan. Allergic reactions to carrageenan are possible [13].

Pregnancy. Carrageenan, in amounts typically found in foods, is safe to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding, but not enough studies have been done to evaluate its safety in larger amounts [8].

Infant formula. In 2014, the Joint Expert Comittee on Food Additives at FAO/WHO (JECFA) “concluded that the use of carrageenan in infant formula or formula for special medical purposes at concentrations up to 1000 mg/L is not of concern” [7].

NOTE: Degraded carrageenan (polygeenan) is not permitted for use in foods. In animal studies, degraded (molecular weight < 50,000 Da) carrageenan has often caused gastrointestinal ulcers and cancers [1,10].

Interactions with Drugs

Carrageenan in combination with drugs for a high blood pressure (captopril, hydrochlorothiazide, etc.) may cause a low blood pressure, and in combination with drugs that decrease blood clotting (aspirin, clopidogrel, heparin, warfarin,  etc.) it may cause bruising or bleeding [9].

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is carrageenan vegan and gluten-free?

Yes.

Is carrageenan-free chocolate, almond or soy milk available?

Yes. Here is one list of carrageenan-free products.

Is carrageenan organic?

In November 2016, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has removed carrageenan from the list of approved substances in foods labeled as “USDA Organic” [14].

Related Nutrients

  1. Tobacman JK, 2001, Review of Harmful Gastrointestinal Effects of Carrageenan in Animal Experiments  PubMed Central
  2. SCOGS (Select Committee on GRAS Substances)  US Food and Drug Administration
  3. Salts of carrageenan  US Food and Drug Administration
  4. Current EU approved additives and their E Numbers  Food Standards Agency
  5. Carrageenan uses  WebMD
  6. Carrageenan  US Food and Drug Administration
  7. Joint FAO/WHO expert comittee on food additives, 79th meeting, Geneve, 17-26 June 2014  World Health Organization
  8. Carrageenan side effects  WebMD
  9. Carrageenan interactions
  10. Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Food on Carrageenan  European Commission Scientific Comittee on Food
  11. Carrageenan, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  12. Cohen SM et al, 2002, A critical review of the toxicological effects of carrageenan and processed eucheuma seaweed on the gastrointestinal tract PubMed
  13. Tarlo SM et al, 1995, Anaphylaxis to carrageenan: a pseudo-latex allergy  PubMed
  14. Siegner C, Novermber 18, 2016, Board nixes use of carrageenan in organic food production  Food Safety News

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