Carrageenan Backlash: Food Firms Are Ousting A Popular Additive | KERA News

Carrageenan Backlash: Food Firms Are Ousting A Popular Additive

Dec 12, 2016
Originally published on December 13, 2016 6:47 am

Erick Ask still remembers the first time he heard about the food ingredient that would become the focus of his professional life. He was in ninth grade.

"Mr. Elslip, my biology teacher, said to us one day, 'How many of you have eaten seaweed?' " Ask recalls. "And nobody raised their hand. And he says, 'Well, how many of you have eaten ice cream?' And we all raised our hands. And he says, 'Well, then you have eaten seaweed!' "

Mr. Elslip was talking about a substance derived from seaweed called carrageenan. His claim was't completely accurate; it isn't in all ice cream. But it's certainly in some brands. It's also used in a range of other food products, from infant formula to meats and certain beverages.

Now, it's starting to disappear, at least from a few of those foods. A committee that proposes rules for the organic food industry just voted to ban it from organic products. The shift is driven by pressure from activist groups that believe, based on a handful of studies, that carrageenan is linked to health problems.

The Cornucopia Institute, one of the groups that campaigned hard for the ban, called the vote a "big win for consumers, who have been voting with their purchasing power for products without the dangerous additive."

Ask, on the other hand, who now works for the FMC Corp., a major carrageenan processor, says, "We find it very disheartening. Tens of thousands of farmers base their livelihood on a healthy carrageenan market, and now some of it is eroding."

This little-known ingredient has a surprisingly long history. A couple of centuries ago, people who lived along the coast in Ireland and Brittany were picking up a kind of seaweed called Irish moss. "They would take it home and boil it, usually in milk," says Ask. The boiling released a substance that formed the structure of the seaweed's cells. That material was carrageenan. It didn't have much taste, but it thickened milk and helped turn it into creamy pudding.

This processing of carrageenan now takes place on a global scale. The FMC Corp., for example, buys seaweed from thousands of small farmers around the world, but mostly in Indonesia and the Philippines. The farmers live along the coast and grow seaweed in the ocean, "right offshore from their houses," Ask says.

Once extracted and dried, carrageenan is a cream-colored powder that looks like bread flour. FMC sells it to food manufacturers.

Lisa Pitka is one of the people who figure out how best to use it. She's a food technologist with Mattson, a company that works with lots of different food manufacturers to fine-tune their recipes.

"Very often I use carrageenan in beverages; high-protein beverages, extended shelf-life beverages," she says. If those products sit on the shelf for a while, their contents can start "jelling," appearing spoiled; or the various ingredients may separate. Particles of cocoa powder may settle to the bottom. Carrageenan keeps the mixture bound together. "It helps to keep the product thick and creamy, and [keep] the product from becoming unappealing to the customer," Pitka says.

Carrageenan is also added to deli meat to keep it from falling apart when you slice it.

Its use has soared in the past few decades. Ask estimates that 5,000 tons of seaweed was harvested for carrageenan production in 1970. Today, it's more than 200,000 tons. According to a report from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, global carrageenan use increased more than five-fold from 2000 to 2010.

Now, though, there's a carrageenan backlash.

A few scientists have reported that carrageenan has caused intestinal inflammation in laboratory animals. Hundreds of people have come forward to say that their health problems — from migraines to intestinal issues — improved when they eliminated carrageenan from their diet.

That evidence is disputed. Other scientists say that they tried to confirm those laboratory results and failed. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as the European Commission and the World Health Organization, say that they still believe carrageenan is safe.

Nevertheless, activist groups have been campaigning to get food companies to stop using it.

And Barbara Shpizner, vice president of innovation at Mattson, says the company is seeing the effects of that pressure. "Clients in the natural channel, or organic products, are saying, 'Let's formulate without carrageenan,' " she says.

There are other additives that can replace carrageenan, she says. They include gellan gum, locust bean gum and xanthan gum. But it often takes a combination of these ingredients, and they don't always work as well. She'd rather use carrageenan.

Organic food companies, though, probably won't have a choice. The National Organic Standards Board, which advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture on rules for the organic industry, recently voted to ban carrageenan from organic food. If the USDA, as expected, adopts that recommendation, the ban could take effect within two years.

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A standard ingredient in dairy products like ice cream is carrageenan. It makes them taste richer and creamier. Now a committee that sets the rules for the organic industry has voted to ban carrageenan, and food manufacturers are scrambling to find a replacement. NPR's Dan Charles has more.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Eric Ask first heard about the food ingredient that would become the focus of his professional life when he was in ninth grade.

ERIC ASK: Mr. Elslip, my biology teacher - he said to us one day, how many of you have eaten seaweed? And nobody raised their hand. And he says, well, how many of you have eaten ice cream? And then we raised our hands. He says, well, then you have eaten seaweed.

CHARLES: Mr. Elslip was talking about carrageenan. He wasn't completely right. Carrageenan's not in all ice cream, but it's in some, and it does come from seaweed. It's an obscure food ingredient with a long history. A couple of centuries ago, people in Ireland or Brittany were already picking up a kind of seaweed called Irish moss.

ASK: They would just take it home, boil it usually in milk.

CHARLES: The boiling released the material that the plant's cell walls were made of, a molecule that didn't have much taste, but it thickened the milk. It helped turn it into creamy pudding. This was carrageenan.

Eric Ask now works for a company that does this on a global scale, the FMC Corporation. It buys seaweed from thousands of small farmers in Indonesia or the Philippines who grow it in the ocean.

ASK: They just do it right offshore from their houses.

CHARLES: FMC extracts the carrageenan, converts it into a cream-colored powder that looks like bread flour and sells it to food manufacturers all over the world. And Lisa Pitka helps figure out how to use it. She's a food technologist with Mattson, a company that works with lots of different food manufacturers, fine-tuning their recipes.

LISA PITKA: Very often I use carrageenan in beverages - high-protein beverages, extended shelf life beverages.

CHARLES: If those products sit on the shelf for a while, they can start looking lumpy and spoiled, or the various ingredients may separate. Things like cocoa powder can settle to the bottom. Carrageenan keeps the mixture bound together.

PITKA: It helps to keep the product thick and creamy and the product from becoming unappealing to the consumer.

CHARLES: It's even used in infant formula and to help keep deli meat from falling apart when you slice it. In 10 years, from 2000 to 2010, global carrageenan use quintupled. But now there's a carrageenan backlash.

A few scientists have reported that carrageenan has caused intestinal inflammation in laboratory animals. Hundreds of people have come forward to say their health problems from migraines to intestinal issues improved when they eliminated carrageenan from their diet. Activist groups have been campaigning to get food companies to stop using it. That evidence is disputed. Other scientists say they tried to confirm those laboratory results and failed.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the European Commission and the World Health Organization all say they still believe carrageenan is safe. But Barbara Shpizner, vice president of innovation at Mattson, the food consultant, says their company is seeing the effects of the anti-carrageenan movement.

BARBARA SHPIZNER: Clients in the natural channel or organic products - they're saying, let's formulate without carrageenan.

CHARLES: There are other approved additives you can use instead of carrageenan, she says. There's gellan gum, locust bean gum, xanthan gum. But you sometimes have to combine several of them to do the same job, and they don't always work as well. She'd rather use carrageenan.

Organic food companies, though, probably won't have a choice. A committee that sets the rules for the organic industry recently voted to ban carrageenan from organic food. If the U.S. Department of Agriculture adopts that recommendation, the ban could take effect within two years. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.