Carrageenan and Gastrointestinal Illness

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Carrageenan is a food additive ubiquitous to the western diet. It is derived from red seaweeds, and is used to modify the texture of foods, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Originating in Japan, hundreds of years ago, it is now processed from sources throughout the world.

Carrageenan is an Ingredient of Many Processed Foods

Foods often augmented with carrageenan include:

  • Chocolate milk
  • Cottage cheese
  • Cake frostings
  • Ice cream
  • Yogurt
  • Coffee creams
  • Processed meat and fish
  • Pudding

The United States Government Considers Carrageenan Safe to Consume

From a chemical point of view, carrageenan is a general term representing a variety of complex sulfated polysaccharides. These compounds are usually in the form of disaccharide D-galactose, 3-6 anhydro-D-galactose, with a lot of attached sulfate functional groups. The structure of these compounds lends to the texture and viscosity of foods when added in small amounts. They are extracted from red sea weed species and are designated “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) by the United States food and drug administration (US FDA).

Role of Carrageenan in Health and Disease

Substantiation exists for the role of some carrageenans in the management of viral conditions like genital herpes and rhinovirus infection. Concurrently, there is much research alluding to an instigating role in inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract. Many experiencing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis (UC) are now attempting to remove it from their diets.

Carrageenan Induces Inflammation of the Digestive Tract

Apparently, a portion of ingested carrageenan molecules are degraded into smaller compounds by the acidic conditions of the stomach or normal flora of the intestines. These smaller compounds are referred to as poligeenins and exhibit marked inflammatory properties.

They do this by activating cells of the immune system (monocytes) that hang out in the digestive tract. These cells metamorphosize into giant eating machines (macrophages) and release chemical messengers called interleukins. The interleukins attract a feeding frenzy of other types of immune cells which damage the intestinal lining. This results in ulcers, and possibly, cancer.

Industrial processing and species source may contribute to the likeliness of toxic and therapeutic products. As more research emerges, governments and industry will be forced to address these issues.

Additional Resources

  • Claudine Benard et al., “Degraded Carrageenan Causing Colitis in Rats Induces TNF Secretion and ICAM-1 Upregulation in Monocytes through NF-κB Activation” 5, no. 1 (n.d.).
  • Cohen SM, Ito N (2002) “A critical review of the toxicological effects of carrageenan and processed eucheuma seaweed on the gastrointestinal tract.” Crit Rev Toxicol 32: 413–444.
  • Marcus AJ, Marcus SN, Marcus R, Watt J (1989) “Rapid production of ulcerative disease of the colon in newly-weaned guinea-pigs by degraded carrageenan.” J Pharm Pharmacol 41: 423–426.
  • Pujol et al., “Antiviral Activity of a Carrageenan from Gigartina skottsbergii against Intraperitoneal Murine Herpes simplex Virus Infection,” Planta Med 72 (2006): 121,125.

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