COULD YOUR ORGANIC FOOD BE MAKING YOU SICK TO YOUR STOMACH
CARRAGEENAN AND FOOD LABELS?

The back of the food label on your organic product may be as free range as the ingredients inside it.  Indeed, you may have already found that the back label isn’t even in the back anymore; it may be at the top; sometimes it’s been strategically moved to the left or right side of the box, or deep underneath where you only once looked for a hole.  That the ingredient list may not be where the whole world would think to find it could be just an attempt to make things more interesting for the consumer, like the engine that’s been moved to the trunk on a Porsche (but with oatmeal and soba noodles and sour cream).  On the other hand, it could just be a stylistic choice, why presume an insidious motive where it comes to food labels?  After all, no one wants too much in the back; or, perhaps, market studies may have shown that consumers overwhelmingly prefer to tilt their heads sideways when reading their box labels, or to hover the milk carton directly over their face. 

Ingredient lists matter to people, according to 86% of consumers surveyed.  However, studies have also found that only 57% report regularly checking the ingredients list before purchasing products.   The problem may be more complex with “organic” or “all-natural” products.  Even if one does scan the labels on a USDA Organic product, there may be very little to tip one off to a bad ingredient.  On such products one might still be looking for those voluptuous key words that make us all feel stupid (not the small words that make us feel stupid).  The multi-hyphenate, multi-syllable words, like polyhydrococopuffs, may be a dead give-away that someone far smarter than you has been tinkering inside of your cereal box.  You may prefer someone of your own level or less (I’d prefer me exactly, since I’d at least know my hands were clean).  But what happens when the ingredient sounds perfectly harmless, and has as few syllables as in avocado?  

For one example, lets say you turn your organic yogurt, sour cream, turkey breast or almond milk to find the ingredient “Carrageenan.”  To be fair, it’s hard to get anything out of a word like Carrageenan.  It lacks a certain carcinogenic spice that comes across with more savory terms, such as Butylated Hydroxyanisole or Ammonium Sulfate.  Those sorts of terms sound too flavorful or exotic to go down easily, certainly enough to give you heart burn or a tumor.

But what about Carrageenan?  The term hardly rings alarm bells.  It sounds like it was coined by a vegan or could be hummed during tree pose.  It even has a reference to the word “care” in it, which sounds pretty polite to ingest.  And gee may sound like butter, while nan may be Indian flat bread, so we put the whole thing together, like we did with our reading letters in grade school, and it sounds like grandma has made us a piece of bread with butter to go inside of our sour cream.  That the harmless sounding Carrageenan may be on the label of a product that’s been USDA Certified Organic may make us even less likely to ask questions.  Indeed, the USDA has put “carrageenan” on its approved list of non-organic additives to organic products, so it is happily used by numerous “organic” companies, which only means you won’t cringe when you see it again and again and again.

So what is Carrageenan?  If you see the ingredient listed on a food label you might see it written this way:  “Carrageenan (From Seaweed).”  Carrageenan is not seaweed.  Seaweed is a plant and its good for you, but that Carrageenan is derived from seaweed doesn’t mean that it too is good for you.  Opium comes from parts of the poppy seed that also can be enjoyed on your bagel.  Carrageenan does not float in the ocean.  It isn’t eaten by sea turtles and manatees.   It’s not wrapped around your maki roll (nor would you want it to be, cause it’s the consistency of a sap or a gum).  

Carrageenan is indeed extracted from red seaweed, and it is predominantly used in food as thickening agents in place of fat or to prevent separation.  It is often used in dairy products such as milk, sour cream, cottage cheese, ice cream, yogurt, and whipped cream.  It also is used to make meats juicier, such as deli cold cuts, and prepared meats, and even in virtually every liquid baby formula on the market, to name just a few.  Those drinking dairy alternatives such as (1) rice, almond, soy, hemp, flax, hazelnut, oat and coconut milks, (2) rice and soy vegan cheese or (3) dairy-free frozen desserts, may also find carrageenan adding substance to the otherwise thin liquids.  It is often used in organic products because it adds thickness to fat free or low-fat foods.  In other words, it is a “fat” substitute for those who have been scared away from fat.  It also is used in foods labeled “low-sodium.”  In products that separate, like chocolate milk, it can keep the chocolate settling away from the milk (so you have to shake it together).   

Thus, for example, Pacific Organic Almond Milk contains Carrageenan, as does Applegate Organics Turkey Breast, Organic Valley Cream, 365 Whole Foods Cottage Cheese, Natural by Nature Whipped Cream, Horizon Sour Cream, Trader Joes Ice Cream, Stonyfield Yogurt Squeezers, So Delicious Coconut Milk, Rice Dream Frozen Dessert, Tempt Hemp Milk, Silk Soy Creamer, O Organics Soy Milk, Annie’s Organic Frozen Pizza.  A more complete list is available through the Cornucopia Institute, which recently published an extensive report on Carrageenan, and has a Shopping Guide listing products that do and don’t use Carrageenan. (See, http://www.cornucopia.org/shopping-guide-to-avoiding-organic-foods-with-carrageenan/)

While it may be less costly or easier to use Carrageenan as a food additive, rather than perfect an organic product with pure ingredients, it is by no means necessary.  For every organic maker reliant on Carrageenan to make its product more palatable, there are numerous others who produce excellent organic products without it.  Nancy’s Cottage Cheese contains no Carrageenan, while being lowfat at that.  Neither does Heidi’s Hens Organic Turkey Breast (which is low fat and salt free), Wallaby Greek Yogurt, Strauss Cream, Three Twins Ice Cream, Clover Sour Cream, Westsoy Almond milk, Vegan Gourmet Cheese, or Trader Joes Frozen Pizza.

So what exactly is the problem with Carrageenan?  According to the well-cited report by Cornucopia, Carrageenan has been shown in numerous animal studies and human cell studies to create inflammation by triggering the body’s own immune response.  Inflammation is, of course, linked with a host of diseases that develop overtime from continued-exposure to irritants, including cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and arthritis.  Carrageenan is particularly linked in studies to gastrointestinal illnesses ranging from discomfort and bloat to full out irritable bowel disease, diabetes, ulcerative colitis, ulcers, lesions and tumors, including especially colon cancer. In fact, Carrageenan when mixed with acids (not unlike those already in existence in the stomach) has been used for decades to induce gastrointestinal inflammation in laboratory animals to test new anti-inflammatory drugs. The mechanism by which Carrageenan triggers such harmful immune response is unclear, but studies have shown that it may interfere with vital enzyme and insulin production, and trigger the same biological pathways as bacteria, like Salmonella (which also comes from the earth).  

A recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that rates of colon and rectal cancers have grown in younger adults over the last decade.  In fact, it has increased by more than 2% each year in younger adults, with rectal cancers jumping nearly 4% each year and colon cancers rising nearly 3% per year.  Why young people in their 30’s and 40’s are experiencing such an unusual increase in these traditionally older-population cancers may require closer scrutiny about what exactly is being eaten.  A market research study conducted by Tabs Group, found that those in the 40 and under category purchased considerably more organics than those in the 60 and older group.  In fact, people under 30 bought on average 4.6 different organic products compared with 2.9 different products purchased by people 60 and older.  

How utterly absurd and unfair would it be if the younger population, who are health conscious and more likely to purchase low-fat and organic products, may be inadvertently getting something that is known to cause gastrointestinal and systemic inflammation and colon cancer (of the very sort this younger age group is suddenly already seeing notable increases in).

So why you might ask is Carrageenan allowed in Organics (although you may suspect the answer)?  Carrageenan is money to big companies, and so are organics.  It’s why GMO’s won’t be labeled in California.  It’s why you will probably need to read labels for as long as there are labels and hopefully there will always be labels, even if they may never be in the same place twice.