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Carrageenan: response. (Correspondence).

It is difficult to recognize a wolf in sheep's clothing. This seems to be the situation with regard to carrageenan.

In response to a letter to EHP from Phil Carthew, I commented on some of the data used for the recent Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) review to which Kirsch refers (1,2). I found the JECFA conclusions disconcerting in view of the available evidence. Previously, the JECFA considered modification of their recommendation about carrageenan to include a minimum average molecular weight (3,4).

Extensive experimental data have demonstrated that a) degraded carrageenan produces neoplasms and ulcerations in animal models; b) acid hydrolysis, such as occurs in the stomach, leads to the production of degraded carrageenan from food-grade carrageenan; and c) food-grade carrageenan contains significant amounts of degraded carrageenan. Human consumption of carrageenan has been increasing steadily in the United States in the 20th century (5-8).

The data with regard to intestinal effects of carrageenan seem sufficient to mandate restriction of carrageenan intake. I remain hopeful that the Food and Drug Administration and the JECFA will revise their recommendations pertaining to the safe use of carrageenan, that industry will substitute other gums for carrageenan, that red seaweed farmers will diversify, and that consumers will select food products without carrageenan.


(1.) Carthew P. Safety of carrageenan in foods [Letter]. Environ Health Perspect 110:A176 (2002).

(2.) Tobacman, JK. Carrageenan in foods: response [Letter]. Environ Health Perspect 110:A176 (2002).

(3.) Greig JB. Carrageenan. WHO Safety Evaluation of Certain Food Additives. Food Additives Series 42. Geneva:World Health Organization, 1999. Available: v042je08.htm [cited 9 April 2002].

(4.) European Commission. Draft Commission Directive. III/5343/96 EN Brussels:European Commission, 1996.

(5.) Tobacman JK. Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments. Environ Health Perspect 109:983-994 (2001).

(6.) Yu G, Guan H, Ioanoviciu AS, Sikkander SA, Thanawiroon C, Tobacman JK, Toida T, Linhardt RJ. Structural studies on [kappa]-carrageenan derived oligosaccharides. Carbohydr Res 337:433-440 (2002).

(7.) Marrs WM. The stability of carrageenans to processing. In: Gums and Stabilisers for the Food Industry 9 (Williams PA, Phillips GO, eds). Cambridge, UK:The Royal Society of Chemistry, 1998;345-357.

(8.) Capron I, Yvon M, Muller G. In-vitro gastric stability of carrageenan. Food Hydrocoll 10(2):239-244 (1996).
Joanne Tobacman
University of Iowa Health Care
Iowa City, Iowa
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Author:Tobacman, Joanne
Publication:Environmental Health Perspectives
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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