Removal of Carcinogenic Substance Uncertain Due to Industry Lobbying

[This article was previously published in the summer issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]

by Linley Dixon, PhD
Farm and Food Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute

Source: Adobe Stock

The FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of more than 9,000 food additives used in conventional foods, a number that former Deputy Commissioner Taylor admits is beyond their capacity.

Evaluating the continued use of food additives in organic food, however, is the responsibility of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which sets a much higher bar according to the regulations set forth in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). This year, assessing the safety of carrageenan for continued use in organic foods is on the NOSB’s agenda. Carrageenan is commonly found in dairy products, deli meats, salad dressings, toothpaste, pet food, and vegan products.

Carrageenan, derived from red seaweed, is considered a “synthetic substance” due to its extraction process and is mandated for an NOSB review by Congress every five years. Carrageenan’s use as an emulsifier and thickener is highly controversial, because independent research indicates it is a potent trigger of inflammation and a possible carcinogen.

To remain on the National List of materials allowed in organic production, carrageenan must meet all three of the following OFPA criteria: 1) essential to organic products; 2) safe to humans and the environment; and, 3) compatible with organic practices. After assessing written and oral public comments at two semi-annual meetings, the NOSB will vote this fall to determine whether carrageenan should remain on the National List.

Cornucopia, along with several farmer and consumer groups, including the National Organic Coalition, Consumer Reports, Center for Food Safety, and Organic Consumers Association, testified at the spring NOSB meeting that carrageenan does not meet the OFPA criteria.

Decades of independent research demonstrate its role in inflammation, colitis, cancer, and diabetes. A number of labs around the world have studied the inflammatory effects of carrageenan, and approximately 10,000 references occur in PubMed when “inflammation and carrageenan” is searched.

Several groups that profit from carrageenan, including carrageenan manufacturers, food processors, and hired lobbyists and scientists, lined up for public comment to assure NOSB members that food-grade carrageenan is safe, and that those stating otherwise were citing bad science and “fear-mongering.”

There was not one scientist or industry representative that testified in support of the safety of carrageenan that doesn’t stand to profit from its use.

In reality, the carrageenan used in thousands of inflammation studies is high-molecular-weight and extracted by the same processes used to obtain food-grade carrageenan. The distinctions the industry makes between food-grade carrageenan and the majority of the carrageenan used in inflammation research are unfounded.

Various companies that either produce carrageenan or that receive funding from the industry have aligned in a group called “United 4 Food Science.” They include FMC Corp., Cargill, International Dairy Foods Association, International Food Additives Council, Marinalg International (an industry lobby group), and many others. Nearly all studies demonstrating the safety of carrageenan can be traced back to the members of United 4 Food Science.

The industry is leading a coordinated effort to discredit public research. These tactics resemble those of the tobacco and fracking industries and must not go unchallenged.

In contrast, Cornucopia and other non-profits attempted to let consumers know that quality, peer-reviewed, published research exists that demonstrates the mechanisms by which carrageenan can cause harm to human health.

Several studies show harm in normal human colonic epithelial cells resulting from consuming amounts less than those in the typical diet, based on an average carrageenan consumption of 250 mg/day. Unfortunately, the industry-disseminated propaganda was repeated in the summary on carrageenan presented by Zea Sonnabend, the NOSB member leading the carrageenan review.

Ms. Sonnabend repeated the industry line that public research had not been repeated, despite Cornucopia’s written and oral testimony citing published work (e.g., Korea University’s College of Medicine study on the effects of high- molecular-weight carrageenan on insulin resistance and inhibition of insulin signaling).

The published research on carrageenan was again presented to the NOSB as “split,” meaning that there are just as many studies pointing to its safety as there are those indicating harm.

However, Ms. Sonnabend failed to point out that there is not one study demonstrating its safety that isn’t funded by the carrageenan industry. Whereas, there are thousands of studies done by independent labs using high-molecular-weight carrageenan to cause inflammation.

Over a dozen industry-funded scientists and representatives presented testimony in-person at the meeting. Some individuals testified that those sounding the alarm on carrageenan are simply confused between poligeenan and carrageenan.

Both carrageenan and poligeenan are extracted from red seaweed, but poligeenan is produced by subjecting carrageenan to acid and high temperatures, and has a much lower average molecular weight. Cornucopia pointed to research showing that food-grade carrageenan always contains a percentage of the harmful, carcinogenic low-molecular-weight form.

The industry doesn’t readily admit that the higher “average” molecular weight of food-grade carrageenan does not preclude the presence of smaller amounts of harmful low-molecular-weight forms. The term “average” in various publications would, by definition, obscure the presence of small amounts of harmful low-molecular-weight carrageenan.

The presence of this low-molecular-weight carrageenan in food-grade carrageenan is confirmed by studies that are both publicly and industry-funded. Many labs around the world continue to investigate the effects of these low-molecular-weight forms in the diet.

Read our full, updated report on carrageenan, along with a scorecard identifying safe organic foods without carrageenan.

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