Is Carrageenan Safe to Consume?

Carrageenan is found in whipped toppings.

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Carrageenan is a water-soluble fiber found in certain types of seaweed. It forms a gel, so it can add texture and the right "mouth-feel" for certain foods. Therefore, carrageenan is used as a thickener or stabilizer in products such as soy milk, ice cream, whipping cream, cream cheese, bakery products, cereals, salad dressings, sauces, and snack foods.

Carrageenan gets its name from seaweed that grows along the coast of Ireland near a village named Carragheen. But most of the carrageenan used in food processing comes from Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other Pacific Islands.

It's classified as GRAS by the United States Food and Drug Administration, which approved its use back in 1961. GRAS stands for "generally recognized as safe." It's been used safely in food processing in the United States for more than fifty years.

Some people believe that consumption of carrageenan may be dangerous, but this belief is mostly based on studies that have since been refuted. 

Is Carrageenan Dangerous?

In 2001, questions were raised about the potential for carrageenan to be a health hazard because one researcher's lab tests suggested exposure to large amounts of degraded carrageenan caused intestinal damage in some species of rodents and primates. 

But the substance used in those studies, degraded carrageenan, isn't the same as the carrageenan used in food products. Degraded carrageenan is properly referred to as poligeenan. It's completely different and doesn't have the same properties as carrageenan, so it's not used in food products.

Some consumers believe that eating foods that contain carrageenan causes them to have digestive problems due to inflammation. This is based on studies involving guinea pigs. But the inflammation caused by the carrageenan was specific to guinea pigs and didn't occur in other animal species.

The research that has been done since 2001 indicates food-grade carrageenan exposure doesn't cause any damage to intestinal walls, nor does it break down into poligeenan during food processing or digestion.

Of course, it's important to keep an eye on any substances used in food manufacturing. The Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). which is formed by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) of the United Nations, has evaluated the research concerning carrageenan as an ingredient in infant formula and found no reason for concern at concentrations up to 1000 milligrams per liter. Consuming carrageenan in high amounts would usually be done under medical supervision. 

Possible Health Benefits

Historically, seaweed was boiled in water or milk, and the extract was used to soothe the digestive system and to treat ulcers and constipation. It's also possible that consuming carrageenan from red algae could be beneficial for your health. 

Carrageenans are part of a larger group of compounds called phycocolloids, and in fact, they're the major source of phycocolloids in red algae. A number of lab studies have shown that carrageenan from red algae may function as an anticoagulant, have cholesterol-lowering effects, and work as an antioxidant to reduce the damage done from exposures to free radicals. It's also possible these carrageenans could have an effect on the immune system. 

Of course, there's much more research to be done because the current findings are mostly based on lab studies on cells, tissues, and animals. To know for sure whether or not carrageenan has any health benefits, studies need to be done under controlled conditions with more humans for longer periods of time. 

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Government Publishing Office. Food and Drug Administration: Carrageenan Food Additive from the Philippines Conforms to Regulations.

  2. Weiner ML, McKim JM, Blakemore WR. Parameters and pitfalls to consider in the conduct of food additive research, carrageenan as a case study. Food Chem Toxicol. 2017;107(Pt A):208-214. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2017.06.022

  3. World Health Organization. WHO Food Additives Series, No. 70: Safety evaluation of certain food additives.

  4. Panlasigui LN, Baello OQ, Dimatangal JM, Dumelod BD. Blood cholesterol and lipid-lowering effects of carrageenan on human volunteers. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2003;12(2):209-214.

By Shereen Lehman, MS
Shereen Lehman, MS, is a former writer for Verywell Fit and Reuters Health. She's a healthcare journalist who writes about healthy eating and offers evidence-based advice for regular people.