FDA puts industry profit over public health - defends safety of controversial food additive
The Cornucopia Institute announced it formally requested that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) remove the common food additive carrageenan from the US food supply.
Last year the FDA rejected a 2008 citizen petition, which presented scientific studies linking carrageenan to gastrointestinal inflammation, including cancer.
The petition was filed by Dr. Joanne Tobacman, a physician-researcher at the University of Illinois - Chicago College of Medicine, who has been studying food-grade carrageenan for more than a decade.
"The FDA's justification for denial was based on a sloppy and incomplete evaluation of available published research, and it was riddled with overt bias that appears to protect an industry's profits at the expense of public health," says Charlotte Vallaeys, director of farm and food policy at Cornucopia, a Wisconsin-based non-profit food policy research group. "We have asked them to reevaluate."
Carrageenan is a highly processed additive extracted from red seaweed. The controversial material contributes no nutritional value or flavor, but is added to affect the texture of a wide range of foods and beverages.
Scientists have raised concern about its safety for decades, based on research linking food-grade carrageenan in the diet of laboratory animals to gastrointestinal disease, including colon tumors.
"Carrageenan has a unique chemical structure, and research has shown that this chemical structure may trigger an innate immune response in the body," says Dr. Pradeep Dudeja, Professor of Physiology in Medicine at the University of Illinois-Chicago, who has co-authored nine studies on carrageenan.
"The immune response leads to inflammation, which is a serious public health concern since chronic, low-grade inflammation is a well-known precursor to more serious diseases, including diabetes and cancer," he adds.
Recent research exploring carrageenan's effects on the body has been supported financially by National Institutes of Health grants, and was prompted by animal studies showing damage to the gastrointestinal tract from food-grade carrageenan.
More than a dozen animal studies, conducted since the late 1960s, have raised concern about carrageenan's safety, but the FDA failed to consider the vast majority of these studies in its analysis.
The FDA also asserted that these studies have been "disputed," a claim based on a paper by Duika Burges Watson, a geography professor from Durham University in the UK who appears to have no medical or scientific degree or background.
"It is unclear why the FDA would place higher value on the opinion of a social scientist from the UK than on the medical studies funded by the National Institutes of Health," observes Vallaeys.
"It is disappointing that the FDA continues to permit carrageenan to be used as a food additive despite clear evidence that it causes inflammation," says Dr. Tobacman.
Medical specialists in the US are taking these concerns seriously.
Dr. Stephen Hanauer, MD, Chief of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at the University of Chicago School of Medicine, states: "The rising incidence and prevalence of ulcerative colitis across the globe is correlated with the increased consumption of processed foods, including products containing carrageenan."
Dr. Hanauer and Dr. Tobacman are currently conducting a study using human patients with ulcerative colitis, a serious gastrointestinal disease.
"Since carrageenan has been found to cause colitis in animal models of ulcerative colitis we felt it would be important to perform a well-controlled dietary study to determine whether carrageenan causes exacerbations (flare ups) of ulcerative colitis in patients in clinical remission," adds Dr. Hanauer, who is also the Joseph B. Kirsner Professor of Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Chicago School of Medicine.
The Cornucopia Institute also just released a report, Carrageenan: How a 'Natural' Food Additive Is Making Us Sick, which compiles scientific studies pointing to harm from consuming food-grade carrageenan.
Cornucopia also produced an accompanying buyer's guide for avoiding the ingredient. Some well-known physicians, like Dr. Andrew Weil, have been warning consumers about carrageenan for years.
"[Dr. Tobacman] explained that all forms of carrageenan are capable of causing inflammation. This is bad news. We know that chronic inflammation is a root cause of many serious diseases including heart disease, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, and cancer," stated Dr. Weil. "All told, I recommend avoiding regular consumption of foods containing carrageenan," he adds.
Cornucopia already shared an analysis of the scientific data with many organic food and beverage companies. After learning about carrageenan's harmful effects on human health, some companies are actively reformulating their products to remove the dangerous additive.
The organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm recently joined companies like Eden Foods in committing to remove carrageenan from all its products. "We are pleased to see Stonyfield boldly siding with their informed customers in this debate," says Vallaeys.
A shopping guide on Cornucopia's website points consumers to carrageenan-free alternatives for many products. For example, Tofu Shop Specialty Foods, Inc., an organic soy foods producer in Arcata, CA, has for years offered chocolate soy milk without carrageenan.
The food industry's claim is that chocolate milk and chocolate soy milk require carrageenan, because it suspends the cocoa particles. The easy alternative to carrageenan, in this case, is asking consumers to shake or stir the beverage first.
"We couldn't find an organic thickener for our soy milks, and one of our employees had the great idea to simply say "Shake It Up" on the bottle," says Matthew Schmit, The Tofu Shop's founder and president. "We're confident that our customers don't mind the minimal effort of shaking the soy milk first and that they prefer a wholesome product free of additives."
Other companies, like Dean Foods, which owns the Horizon organic brand and Silk brand, appear unwilling to part with this convenient additive and are attempting to dispute the science, disseminating misleading claims that food-grade carrageenan is "natural" and therefore safe.
"Natural does not mean safe," says Vallaeys. "Poison ivy is natural, but you wouldn't put it in skin lotion. Given that carrageenan appears to do to your gut what poison ivy does to your skin, we urge all companies to remove this ingredient from the foods and beverages they sell."
"We hope the FDA will act in the public's interest and perform a good faith evaluation of the science, and revoke the regulations that currently allow carrageenan in food," says Vallaeys. "But until they do, it is up to individual consumers to take their safety and health into their own hands and avoid any foods and beverages containing this harmful ingredient."