Don’t Fall for “Alternative Facts”

We hear a lot about “fake news” these days, but unfortunately, it’s been around for a lot longer than most realize in the realm of food safety.

The natural seaweed source carrageenan has been used in Ireland since 400 AD as a home remedy to cure coughs and colds. When processed, it can be changed into two forms; one of which we eat, the other we don’t—nor have we ever. Over the past several years, however, the common-sense distinction between these two forms has become the unlikely source of much manufactured debate.

Although degraded and food-grade carrageenan are vastly different in both their physical properties and practical applications, many harmful effects of the compound that are derived from the same plant have often been mistakenly associated with food-grade carrageenan. Coincidence? Perhaps we have been too trusting of organizations’ intentions to begin with.

Refresher: What Makes a Study Credible?

As always, consumers need to remember that all science—flawed or factual—can be framed to fit an agenda. Consider the following before falling victim to sensationalized news:

  • Is this scenario realistic?
  • What is actually being tested here?
  • Who is telling me this?
  • What do the words really mean?
  • What is the context?

Just as gluten, eggs, coffee, wine and the like periodically go in and out of public favor based on new and emerging research surrounding their supposed health benefits, food additives can be thought of in much the same way. The key difference in this case, however, is that it is definitely harder for folks to defend a tasteless, invisible ingredient with an odd name than it is to make the case for something as simple as an egg, even if the science on the whole is equally as confounding.

Debunking a Few More Rumors

Didn’t Europe ban carrageenan from infant formula and otherwise limit its use to minimal amounts?

  • Nope! It is even allowed in baby formula, whereas other more-familiar ingredients are not.
  • In fact, its “limit” falls in the range of several hundreds or even thousands of times more than is typically used in food. It would be physically impossible to consume as much as the government allows in a single day, even if you wanted to—and this is coming from a government with much stricter limitations on food safety. In fact, the commission is poised to remove this limit entirely sometime this year.

Okay, well, hasn’t carrageenan still been long been linked to inflammation?

  • Not true. Carrageenan has never been shown to cause inflammation in humans; in fact, carrageenan has been shown to reduce inflammation and provide other health benefits.
  • Yes, some malformed studies have shown it to trigger inflammatory pathways in labs, but by the same application, so have many other commonly eaten foods and nutrients required for human life (such as essential amino acids, protein, saturated/unsaturated fats, green tea, etc.).
  • Carrageenan has never been shown to cause inflammation in humans. In fact, it has actually been shown to reduce inflammation in certain usages.
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