How Did Carrageenan Get into Your Organic Food Anyway?

December 4th, 2013

The following is excerpted from The Cornucopia Institute’s report “Carrageenan: How A Natural Food Additive is Making Us Sick.”

Organic foods should be a safe haven from harmful ingredients. In fact, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the law governing organic foods, requires that non-agricultural ingredients must be determined safe to human health and not deleterious to the environment before they can be added to organic foods. After all, if organic food isn’t safer than conventional food, what’s the point, right?

carrageenan.reportSo, how did a controversial ingredient like carrageenan get into organic food in the first place? The additive is divisive in the industry because of its link to gastrointestinal issues and a higher rate of colon cancer (in animal studies).

Federal organic standards require that nonorganic ingredients must be essential to producing the food (e.g., baking powder for producing organic cookies). Since nearly every product on store shelves containing carrageenan can be found by another manufacturer using an alternative to carrageenan (e.g., locust bean gum, guar gum), or with the words “shake it” on the package, carrageenan does not appear to be an essential food-processing ingredient.

Yet carrageenan made its way into organic foods due to carelessness by government regulators, misinformation supplied by corporate “independent” scientists advising the USDA, and successful lobbying by carrageenan manufacturers and food processors convincing organic consumers that it’s both a safe and necessary ingredient.

For the past two decades, food industry executives and lobbyists have managed to convince enough members of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)—the 15-member citizen panel of organic stakeholders that determines which non-organic ingredients can be used in organic foods—to give carrageenan its stamp of approval. Their tactics have become increasingly more manipulative and ethically questionable as it becomes clearer that scientific evidence is not on their side.

The NOSB first approved carrageenan in the mid-1990s. As required by law, the USDA had hired three “independent” contractors to perform a thorough scientific and technical review of the additive.

Their job was to provide an independent review, including any concerns about the additive’s effects on human health or the environment. In their official reports to the NOSB, the three contractors assured the NOSB that no effects on human health had been identified.

One of the three “independent” contractors was Dr. Richard Theuer, a former corporate executive who had been a colleague at Mead Johnson of Dr. Herbert Sarett, the author of the letter published in The Lancet defending the safety of carrageenan in food.

Another contractor was Stephen Harper, a food scientist at Small Planet Foods, which is now owned by the multi-billion-dollar corporation General Mills. The third contractor was an academic. The three scientists claimed they had found no studies raising concern about food-grade carrageenan’s effects on human health. The NOSB, unaware of the concerns about this food additive, approved carrageenan for use in organics.

The important Sunset regulatory process requires that the NOSB review every five years each non-organic and synthetic material allowed for use in organic food and agriculture. The review revisits if continued use of the material threatens human health or the environment and if an organic-produced alternative is viable.  It provides organic shoppers with the reassurance that ingredients will be carefully reviewed periodically. But in the case of carrageenan, it’s not good news…yet, anyway.

Carrageenan came up for it periodic review at the May, 2012 meeting with the NOSB debating if it should be “relisted” on the National List of allowed synthetics and non-organics.

Cornucopia staff members were at the meeting and presented scientific studies pointing to carrageenan’s harmful effects.  Cornucopia staff urged the NOSB to remove carrageenan from the list of approved additives.

Meanwhile, industry lobbyists presented misinformation about carrageenan’s safety and questioned the credibility of independent research commissioned by the National Institutes of Health.

One of the NOSB members took an active role in assisting the carrageenan manufacturers. At one point, she read lengthy excerpts from a document written by the carrageenan manufacturers’ trade lobby group, Marinalg, defending the safety of carrageenan. But before reading these lengthy excerpts, the Board member misidentified the excerpts as “being from JECFA, a United Nations/FAO body” when in fact they were written by the industry’s lobby group. Pretty infuriating, right? How can research from a biased lobby group be mistaken for a United Nations/FAO study?

It is unclear whether this Board member intentionally misled her fellow NOSB members, or whether she herself was misled by the carrageenan manufacturers’ lobbyists with whom she collaborated (but it’s a big mistake, nonetheless—one that could be causing innocent consumers unnecessary pain and discomfort).

During this meeting, scientists with different perspectives presented oral testimony. A representative from FMC Corporation, a multi-billion-dollar chemical corporation that also manufactures pesticides and industrial chemicals, in addition to manufacturing carrageenan, defended carrageenan’s safety. A scientist representing lobbyist Marinalg International also defended carrageenan.

Meanwhile, Dr. Joanne Tobacman urged the removal of carrageenan from organic foods and beverages.  Dr. Tobacman is employed by the nation’s largest medical school and is the nation’s preeminent expert on carrageenan’s gastrointestinal inflammatory properties. She presented her own research and evidence from other scientists.  This research spotlighting carrageenan’s harmful impact has been primarily funded by public institutions, including the National Institutes of Health.

The NOSB voted, by a slim one-vote margin, to re-approve the use of carrageenan in organic foods for another five-year period

Sadly, even one of the NOSB members who was appointed to the board as a “public interest/consumer” representative voted to allow continued use of carrageenan, despite the strong opposition from every public interest and consumer group at the meeting.

And several of the NOSB members with a clear conflict of interest voted to approve carrageenan after they failed to recuse themselves from voting, as the NOSB’s policies require. One Board member who voted in favor of carrageenan was employed by Whole Foods Market, which produces and markets a wide variety of products containing carrageenan under its own proprietary 365 Organic brand.

Another NOSB member who voted in favor of carrageenan was employed by Organic Valley, which has been using carrageenan in several of its products. In fact, prior to the meeting, the CEO of Organic Valley spoke directly with several NOSB members to lobby for carrageenan’s approval, and during the meeting a representative of the cooperative presented formal testimony asking for carrageenan’s continued use.

You can read Cornucopia’s entire report here, and be sure to check out our scorecard highlighting products available without the carrageenan additive.

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