The USDA Decision is in and the Future of Carrageenan Looks Bright

In an important victory for both sound science and organic food production, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reviewed recommendations from the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) and has officially continued its listing as an approved ingredient in organic foods.

Carrageenan, a common ingredient found in chocolate milk, nutritional shakes, ice cream, deli meats, and even infant formula, has long been at the center of a heated debate. For the past two decades, carrageenan opponents have been pushing to remove carrageenan as an approved food additive, using unverified research in an attempt to connect carrageenan to a variety of illnesses, including inflammatory bowel disease and ulcerative colitis.

These attempts have ultimately failed as carrageenan safety has been proven time and time again. In fact, there are few food additives as well-researched as carrageenan. Carrageenan has been thoroughly tested for nearly half a century, and has been used in food for at least 2400 years without any reliable evidence of toxic effects or associated illness.

As such, the USDA’s decision to keep carrageenan on its national list of allowed substances should come as no surprise. Even the NOSB, in recommending that carrageenan be delisted, admitted that their decision was not based on safety- or health-related concerns, stating at a November 2016 meeting that “the body of scientific evidence does not support claims of widespread negative human health impacts from consumption of carrageenan in processed foods.” Likewise, NOSB lead scientist Zea Sonnabend confirmed that “science sides pretty clearly with the safety of carrageenan.”

If the NOSB recognizes that carrageenan is perfectly safe as a food ingredient, then on what grounds were they willing to propose that it be excluded from the national list?

Consider the criteria established by the NOSB and USDA for approved use in organic foods — specifically, is the substance in question safe, sustainable, and essential?

As far as safety is concerned, both the NOSB and the USDA acknowledge that carrageenan poses no health risks as a food ingredient. Likewise, the sustainability of the farming techniques used to harvest carrageenan are well-established. That leaves only one point worth considering: Is carrageenan essential?

The NOSB suggested that carrageenan was not essential and that other ingredients could replace it without significantly altering the organic food. Clearly, the USDA disagrees, and rightfully so. Carrageenan is essential, and here are a few of the reasons why it is so important.

What is carrageenan and why is it essential?

Despite the relatively recent “is carrageenan safe” debate, carrageenan has actually been used as an ingredient in food across the world for centuries. It is extracted from red seaweed, and though it shows up most often in store-bought foods, all it takes is access to that seaweed and a blender, and you can make carrageenan in your own kitchen.

Of course, if the question is “what is carrageenan?” then let’s take a step back and ask why we use carrageenan in the first place.

Most foods that contain carrageenan rely on its unique thickening and stabilizing properties. When used as a thickener, carrageenan fills a function similar to cornstarch or flour, increasing food viscosity (thickness) without otherwise affecting flavor or appearance. As a stabilizer, carrageenan helps keep food like ice cream and chocolate milk (to name only a few) from separating. No one likes the chocolate to settle to the bottom of a full glass of chocolate milk; with carrageenan, it won’t.

What is worth noting about carrageenan is that it accomplishes these tasks in place of other ingredients (that are often much higher in sugar and calories), improving overall food nutrition without compromising experience. Carrageenan is a dream come true when it comes to food additives — an ingredient that serves an important purpose while also allowing for healthier food options.

But is it, strictly speaking, essential to organic foods?

Organic food producers certainly think so. While substitutes may be available, these substitutes are much less effective (and less cost effective) than carrageenan. In a third-party blind survey of 69 dairy food and beverage professionals, most participants choose carrageenan as the clear “essential” choice. 80% of respondents also identified carrageenan as “extremely safe,” making it the highest safety rated of all possible ingredients.

If the USDA had upheld the recommendation to delist carrageenan, the organic food industry would have found itself in a difficult position — forced to use inferior ingredients at greater expense. As Dr. Susan Finn of United 4 Food Science explained, this would “make it difficult for organic food products to compete with non-organic products on sensory attributes such as taste and texture. This outcome may lead to consumers deselecting organic foods altogether.”

Additionally, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has recently stated, “Carrageenan continues to be necessary for handling agricultural products because of the unavailability of wholly natural substitutes. Carrageenan has specific uses in an array of agricultural products, and public comments reported that potential substitutes do not adequately replicate the functions of carrageenan across the broad scope of use.”

Without reliable alternatives, carrageenan certainly fits the description of “essential.” Of course, the question of necessity would be pointless if carrageenan didn’t already meet the other two criteria: safety and sustainability.

Is carrageenan safe? Yes!

As previously mentioned, the “is carrageenan safe” debate is one that has reached new levels of intensity in just the past few decades. But despite how loudly anti-carrageenan groups pursue their agenda, the facts just don’t support their claims.

This is why food regulatory groups, including the FDA, JECFA, EC, and Japan Ministry of Labor and Welfare, have continued to voice their support for carrageenan. In fact, a joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has reviewed all available science and found carrageenan to be safe for use in infant formula, including formula for special medical purposes. As carrageenan is the only stabilizer approved for use in organic liquid infant formula in the U.S., this decision is essential in making sure that families can continue to provide an organic infant formula to their children that delivers the right nutrients in every sip.

By continuing to base its decisions on science rather than hype, the USDA has confirmed its commitment to promoting healthy foods backed by reliable research.

Is carrageenan sustainable? Yes!

Seaweed farming is one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture currently available. The process of farming carrageenan uses no arable farmland. It requires no pesticides, special fertilizers, or other agricultural chemicals. Compared to many “organic” farming techniques that nevertheless use pesticides and other chemicals (there are over 20 different chemicals that are approved for use in growing organic produce) and require massive amounts of farmland, seaweed farming can be maintained indefinitely without noticeable negative impact on the environment.

Seaweed farms also provide a protected environment where declining fish populations can recover (an important consideration given that it is estimated that there are only half as many fish in the ocean as there were just 50 years ago). The seaweed itself has been shown to provide other ecosystem services, as well.

Finally, seaweed farming offers an alternative source of income to developing coastal nations that have traditionally relied on fishing. Thanks to seaweed farming, tens of thousands of people have been able to significantly improve their standard of living.

In terms of sustainability, the facts all support carrageenan.

Safe, sustainable, and essential: Carrageenan fits the bill

In overturning the NOSB’s recommendation to remove carrageenan from the list of additives allowed in organic foods, the USDA is confirming once again that carrageenan is a safe, sustainable, and essential food ingredient.

While the carrageenan debate will likely continue despite the USDA decision, this is an important victory both for organic-food producers, who will be able to continue making the organic products we know and love, and for consumers who support sound science and want to be able to enjoy ingredients that are safe for their bodies, beneficial to the environment, and essential to the food experience.