Label Decoder: Carrageenan

by in Grocery Shopping, Label Decoder, March 13, 2012
dairy aisle
Carrageenan is on the ingredients list of many products in the dairy aisle, but what is it?

This ingredient is found in foods like ice cream, jelly and even infant formula. Find out what it does and if it’s safe to eat.

What Is It?
Carrageenan is made from seaweed and was named after a small town in southern Ireland named Carragheen (it’s sometimes referred to as Irish Moss). It’s been used in food for several centuries. This additive is used as a thickening, gelling and stabilizing agent. It’s typically used together with other thickeners such as xanthan or guar gum.

You’ll find it in ice cream, jelly, chocolate milk, cottage cheese, infant formula, flan, custards, whipped cream and puddings. In cottage cheese, it helps improve the texture while in chocolate milk it helps stabilize the protein and creates a smooth mouth feel.

Is It Safe?
Studies have found that certain forms of the additive can cause intestinal cancers and ulcerations in animals. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) categorized carrageenan as safe in small amounts. Your best bet is to be mindful of the ingredient—and choose alternate products without it when possible.

TELL US: Which additives would you like us to decode next?

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Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby’s full bio »

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  5. CornucopiaInst says:

    The Cornucopia Institute just released a report compiling the scientific evidence linking the food additive carrageenan to gastrointestinal inflammation and disease. The press release and report are available here: and They're also asking people who cut carrageenan out of their diet and who noticed improvements in their gastrointestinal health to fill out an online questionnaire (, which is designed to assist medical researchers in better understanding the impact of carrageenan on public health.

    • ISI says:

      1. General safety concerns raised regarding the safety of carrageenan as a food additive
      Claim that high molecular weight carrageenan will break down to lower molecular weight forms by stomach acid:
      Carefully designed in vitro or in vivo studies failed to confirm the extensive carrageenan breakdown. Another recent study also demonstrated that the average molecular weight of carrageenan was not significantly changed during its digestive transit in rats fed undegraded carrageenan.
      Claim that other reports have identified carrageenan as a cause of allergy and anaphylaxis:
      Specific references to support this statement were not provided. A search of published literature did not reveal any publication that unequivocally supports this statement. In fact one study found stated that ingestion of carrageenan significantly reduced the incidence of anaphylaxis and other allergic responses.
      2. References to reports in other literature of inflammation, ulcerations, and neoplasms
      Again she did not provide references to these studies and it was found that existing literature did not provide support for her requested action.
      3. Experimental model systems used in the studies are not representative of the effects from approved uses
      In the five submitted research papers she did provide to support her request used in vitro cell/tissue culture models such that the colonic cells were directly exposed to carrageenan, and the conclusions were based on cellular changes measured by biochemical or molecular biological techniques. Such models do not provide a parallel to food consumptions, in other words, intake without food components, such as proteins. In short, these studies do not provide results that would mimic how carrageenan is actually introduced into the human digestive system and therefore cannot be used as such.

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