Deborah - About.com User
It's classified as GRAS by the United States Food and Drug Administration. GRAS stands for "generally recognized as safe." It's been used safely in food processing in the United States for more than fifty years. However, some people believe that consumption of carrageenan may be dangerous.
Is It Dangerous?Some people believe eating foods that contain carrageenan causes them to have digestive problems. In 2001, questions were raised about the potential for carrageenan to be a health hazard because lab tests showed that exposure to large amounts of degraded carrageenan caused intestinal damage in some species of rodents and primates. However, it's important to understand that degraded carrageenan isn't the same as the carrageenan used in food products. Degraded carrageenan is properly referred to as poligeenan, and it doesn't have the same properties as carrageenan, so it's not used in food products. Since 2001, more research has been done and it indicated that food grade carrageenan exposure doesn't cause any damage to intestinal walls, nor does it break down into poligeenan during food processing or during digestion.
Possible Health Benefits?It's actually possible that carrageenan could be beneficial. Historically, the seaweed was boiled in water or milk and the extract was used to soothe the digestive system, to treat ulcers, and taken as a laxative. It may also have the potential to lower cholesterol and triglycerides, but very little research has been done so far.
Carrageenan appears to be safe when consumed in the amounts found in a normal diet. However, if you choose to avoid it, read the ingredients list on food labels.
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Borowitzka M, Critchley A. "Nineteenth International Seaweed Sympotsium: Proceedings of the 19th International Seaweed Symposium." Springer. 2007.
Hui YH. "Handbook of Food Science, Technology, and Engineering." Volume 2. CRC Press. 2006.
Imeson A. "Food Stabilisers, Thickeners and Gelling Agents." Wiley-Blackwell. 2011. Natural Standard Professional Monograph. "Carrageenan (Chondrus crispus). Tobacman JK. "Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments." Environ Health Perspect. 2001 Oct;109(10):983-94.
United States Food and Drug Administration. "Database of Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Reviews - Carrageenan." Accessed May 24, 2012. http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/fcn/fcnDetailNavigation.cfm?rpt=scogsListing&id=76.