Return to Blog January 7, 2022

Carrageenan: What Is It, and What Else Should I Know?

Ingredients Tilley News
Smiling young boy enjoys a glass mug of delicious chocolate milk.

For nearly two decades now, carrageenan has been caught up in safety-related conversation and controversy. Despite reams of new research supporting this food ingredient’s use—and important questions raised about the validity of the previous studies that deemed it harmful—both general consumers and some food manufacturers remain hesitant about utilizing this natural ingredient.

Carrageenan Quick Facts 

What Is Carrageenan?

Carrageenan is extracted from specific red seaweeds (Rhodophyta) of the order Gigartinales, and families Gigartinaceae and Solieriaceae, such as Chondrus crispus, Gigartina stellata, Kappaphycus alverezii, and Eucheuma denticulatum.  Carrageenan offers excellent characteristics as a thickener, stabilizer, and gelling agent. The food industry has used carrageenan for decades as a natural food additive. Also, carrageenan’s versatile properties make it well suited for use in personal care products.

What Foods Contain Carrageenan?

Common carrageenan-containing food products include ice cream, chocolate milk, jellies, meats, yogurt, pudding, infant formula, and cottage cheese. It has also become a fixture in non-dairy milk products like almond milk and soy milk. Carrageenan is vegan, which has helped manufacturers offer vegan-friendly foods that would otherwise have included gelatin, which does not meet vegan certification.

In general, foods that often utilize carrageenan include:

  • Buttermilk
  • Chocolate milk
  • Coconut water
  • Deli meat
  • Dressings
  • Frozen meals
  • Gummies
  • Pre-cooked poultry
  • Protein shakes
  • Smoothies
  • Soups

Besides Food, What Is Carrageenan Used For?

This ingredient is routinely used in non-food or pet food applications. Consumers will find carrageenan in skincare products and personal care products in every aisle at their local grocery store, including toothpaste, air freshener gels, and more. Its characteristics as a thickening agent make it viable in healthcare applications as well.

Carrageenan Research: An Overview

Carrageenan is natural, biodegradable, non-toxic, and vegan. Where did the controversy come from? Studies from the 1970s and 1980s stated that carrageenan caused inflammation in animal tests. However, many of these studies did not test food-grade carrageenan. Instead, these studies were conducted with degraded carrageenan, which is also known as poligeenan. Poligeenan is not safe to eat and has been labeled as a possible human carcinogen.

In rodent testing, poligeenan was found to cause inflammation and bowel issues. Unfortunately, these same labels have been applied to carrageenan without any basis in research.

In spite of claims, food-grade carrageenan hasn’t been linked to cancer in any study. Some of the most recent research was unable to duplicate results of earlier studies, which found cases of inflammation in guinea pigs. Those symptoms were considered specific to the species after the reaction failed to emerge in other animals.

It’s also worth noting that the studies that found inflammation in guinea pigs did so using amounts of carrageenan well in excess of what humans are exposed to in foods.

Is Carrageenan Bad for You?

There is no evidence that carrageenan has adverse health side effects. The FDA approved the ingredient in 1961, and its approval has been reconfirmed for more than five decades. Claims of stomach inflammation or bloating are anecdotal and have not been observed in a clinical trial.

Carrageenan Benefits

This ingredient makes many vegan and organic foods possible by thickening those products and contributing to their commercial viability. Without carrageenan, many consumers would not be able to purchase as many vegan-friendly items to support their healthy lifestyle.

Learn More About Carrageenan

At Tilley Distribution, our R&D scientists are committed to offering our customers the highest quality ingredients. To learn more about carrageenan research and how to best use carrageenan in your products, talk with a Tilley representative today.