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Gayle Sudit had reached a medical standstill. After a diagnosis of proctitis that escalated into ulcerative colitis, her symptoms persisted, despite the prescriptions she filled for months.
Her gastroenterologist recommended an elimination diet (standard for someone with her diagnosis), which only exacerbated her symptoms, even making her late for work several times.
In 2014, she found The Cornucopia Institute’s research on carrageenan, a commonly used food additive and thickening agent that is such a predictable source of GI inflammation that it’s used in laboratory settings to induce inflammation and test the effects of anti-inflammatory drugs.
That research changed her approach to reclaiming her health. Her new plan: intentionally avoid carrageenan. An organic eater who was already careful about her food choices, she used Cornucopia’s guide to ditch brands that contained carrageenan and, when dining out, asked restaurant employees to share the ingredient lists for sauces or the plumping agents used in chicken. Most waitstaff had never heard of carrageenan, but many were intrigued. (One waiter was so enlightened, he spearheaded a staff-wide education session on it.)
Sudit speculates that her daily habit of eating ice cream, and the attendant carrageenan, led to her initial GI issues. Within 24 hours of eliminating carrageenan from her diet, her symptoms dramatically improved. This was no fluke: When she accidentally ingested carrageenan several weeks later, her symptoms returned. “Cornucopia’s research literally changed my life.”
Sudit’s story is sadly not surprising. Thousands of cell-based and animal experiments, along with more than 2,500 complaints from people who use Cornucopia’s consumer research, indicate that carrageenan causes inflammation. While many people are not impacted by carrageenan, this substance causes serious distress for people like Sudit who are prone to gastrointestinal issues.
(If you have eliminated carrageenan from your diet and found relief, please fill out our questionnaire.)
The same ingredient that’s shunned by a growing group of consumers is celebrated by industry, which has pushed back against every effort to remove this thickening and emulsifying agent—or even clearly label it—in the grocery store products that commonly land in organic eaters’ carts.
Carrageenan is nearly impossible to avoid in processed foods. Take your favorite ice cream brand. Carrageenan may be what gives it that “silky” mouth feel, but because the substance is used as a processing aide, it isn’t always listed on the ingredient panel.
Food manufacturers have long viewed carrageenan as a processing game changer. They prize its versatility and effectiveness, calling it “one of nature’s perfect stabilizers” and arguing that carrageenan is a “traditional food” that has been consumed for hundreds of years around the world. (What they aren’t telling you: the processed carrageenan we consume is much different than the one used in traditional cooking methods.)
Industry’s voice is often louder than the consumer’s. Researchers with ties to the carrageenan industry have diminished studies indicating carrageenan contributes to higher rates of gastrointestinal disease in laboratory animals, even discrediting and drowning out top researchers with industry-funded research.
Yet the research around carrageenan warrants scrutiny:
- Early studies reliably found that food-grade carrageenan induced or worsened inflammation, with some finding that it contributed to ulcerative colitis-like disease in laboratory animals (guinea pigs) and higher rates of tumors in rats.
- Other findings included the determination that carrageenan penetrates the intestinal barrier and an association between loss of epithelial cells (the cell membranes in the intestine) with the consumption of both un-degraded and degraded carrageenan. Carrageenan was also found to stimulate inflammatory pathways tied to immune response.
- More recent research focused on the adverse effects of carrageenan on human health. A study in 2017 showed that carrageenan disrupts normal gut function, promotes intestinal inflammation, and consequently could compromise consumer health. Another recent study found that carrageenan may trigger or magnify an inflammatory response in the human intestine and that consumption of carrageenan was a risk factor for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
- A 2017 clinical trial showed that people with colitis should avoid carrageenan. A review of carrageenan safety research from 2019 concluded that this substance has not been definitively determined as “safe” and that more research is required.
- Finally, research in 2020 found that inflammatory properties of carrageenan are related to carrageenan’s modification of the intestinal microbiome and that carrageenan can exacerbate chronic inflammation—which could explain why people with existing chronic conditions improve with a carrageenan-free diet.
As Joanne Tobacman, M.D., a leading expert on carrageenan’s health effects, can attest, this controversial substance is in need of a more critical look: “Because of the acknowledged carcinogenic properties of degraded carrageenan in animal models, and the cancer-promoting effects of un-degraded carrageenan in experimental models, the widespread use of carrageenan in the Western diet should be reconsidered.”