It can be worrying when you hear bad things about foods and ingredients that make up a significant part of your diet. Confusion can abound, and in our experience, a lot of wires can get crossed.
This is why we are taking a closer look at the question is Carrageenan bad for you?
Is Carrageenan Bad for You?
This topic has clearly sparked a lot of conversation. And as a consequence, this has pulled various humble seaweed species into the muddy waters of the misguided ‘Carrageenan is bad’ debate without any true merit.
To set the record straight, there is a big difference between a whole seaweed used as a wholefood or ingredient, and what is commonly referred to as carrageenan.
To be clear, we are actually talking about something that is more accurately called poligeenan, previously known as ‘degraded carrageenan’, and not actually carrageenan at all.
Before we look at some of the research, keep in mind that carrageenan and poligeenan are not the same thing.
Poligeenan is where the noted health concerns are found according to many experts. This is due to the impacts studied arising from the chemical degradation of carrageenan into poligeenan as a part of the manufacturing process.
Carrageenan is a polysaccharide. A carbohydrate polymer consisting of natural carbohydrates with a mineral composition that includes calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium.
As a naturally-occurring carbohydrate polymer found in specific seaweeds, it is extracted and used in a range of processed food products, commonly as a stabilizer.
On the other hand, poligeenan is something very different. Undergoing certain chemical processes during manufacturing, it has been reported as being connected with triggering, and potentially even causing complications such as:
These studies indicate that it has even been suggested that it can be a possible cause of colon cancer. 
Despite the research cited, there are other studies which report that there is not reliable data connecting Carrageenan with IBS and allergic reactions. 
How could that be?
This is understood as being based on the confusion between carrageenan and poligeenan (degraded carrageenan). Previous studies are understood to have referred to poligeenan as carrageenan, when this was not clearly the case. [8, 11]
There is a very big difference between poligeenan and the various types of seaweed you can buy in your local store, or through us online.
What is Carrageenan?
You may have heard of a product called Carrageenan or Carrageenins. Carrageenan is a byproduct of red seaweed. Until the commercial farming of other more efficient growing species of seaweed, it was largely sourced from Chondrus Crispus. 
The seaweed is refined and made into carrageenan, which is then typically processed into a gel. It is used worldwide for its stabilizing properties, and as a thickening agent.
Carrageenan that is classified as being of food grade has a larger and more stable molecular weight structure when compared to poligeenan.
Food grade carrageenan does not present the same challenges and risks as poligeenan. It is in a stable and non-degraded form, meaning that it does not degrade upon consumption.
What is Poligeenan?
Poligeenan is not permitted to be used as a food ingredient. It has a molecular weight structure that is as much as 50% to 90% smaller than food grade carrageenan.
Through the acid hydrolysis of carrageenan, where it is exposed to temperatures exceeding 80°C, poligeenan is made. It is intended only for use in non-food related processes, which typically is limited to medical imaging.
So, is Carrageenan bad for you?
Over the years findings have suggested that Carrageenan, as a refined product made from specific seaweeds, may cause irritation in the bowel for some people. However, with the more recent revision of a large number of studies, this information has been called in to question. 
In the extensive report “Connecting the Dots: Corporate Influence at the USDA’s National Organic Program” the Cornucopia Institute openly criticized manufacturers of food products over their use of Carrageenan in what were supposed to be organic foods. 
The first lines of this report spell out the tone of the paper by titling it the Organic Watergate.
It is worth noting that in this White Paper the term “degraded carrageenan” appears multiple times under headings that appear to look at carrageenan. I don’t see how this approach supports clarity considering the all too pervasive #TLDR culture emerging today.
The Cornucopia Institute make some compelling points in this report with the studies referenced in the timeline from page 12 onwards pertaining to an arguable dilution of fact.
Conjecture around the real problem coming from degraded Carrageenan, a low molecular weighted product, and not from undegraded Carrageenan was refuted within this report. The degraded or undegraded state of the Carrageenan was reported to be, more or less, irrelevant when looking at the effects.
This makes for some interesting debate when considering the opinions of other qualified professionals on the other side of the aisle. 
This type of practice is not uncommon, particularly when in the company of large organisations. In Australia we have seen the misappropriation of food labeling standards by large retailers to the point that customers had boycotted entire lines in the stores.
It is each and every one of us at the end of the day who makes the decisions for ourselves here. You do have choices. Even if that choice is to not partake for your own reasons.
Carrageenan, displayed on food labeling as an additive under the number ‘407’ or code ‘E407’ is used as a thickening or stabilizing agent. This is not the whole seaweed.
Used in everything from ice cream, to soy milk, to meat, Carrageenan can be purchased by the ton from manufacturers in China through wholesalers.
A highly politicised situation, as a result, has since unfolded. This has left many people wondering if they should avoid seaweeds altogether.
So what do I think? I’m not inclined to agree with the broad sweeping statements that some have about seaweed being carrageenan, and therefore unsafe.
I don’t think there is valid reason to avoid seaweed altogether based on this misunderstanding – after all Carrageenan and seaweed aren’t actually the same thing.
As I suggested earlier, to say that Carrageenan is the same as seaweed is comparable to saying that high fructose syrup is the same as organic corn. It’s a bit like saying that fresh raspberries are the same as raspberry cordial.
Refined Substances vs. Whole Foods
Refining a substance from primary source does not mean that it is likely to be more effective in higher concentrations. The whole food carries the volume of minerals and vitamins wrapped up inside specific structures that enable them to get to where they are needed in the body.
This is Nature’s clever gift. For example, there’s no need for us to extract the essence of an orange down to simply the ascorbic acid.
There are other minerals, vitamins, and sugars that allow the Vitamin C to make it all the way to where it is needed, intact, to be more effective that 1000mg concentrated into a pill. 
A woman could certainly be at high risk of her baby being born with various defects if she was to have too much synthetic Vitamin A in supplement form during her pregnancy. 
However, consuming foods which are rich in natural sources of Vitamin A are perfectly safe. To consume the volume of wholefoods that are high in Vitamin A in order to have the same effect as a synthetic, high concentration, supplement is nothing short of a super-human ‘Man Versus Food’ effort.
To allow seaweeds as wholefoods to be caught up in the confusion around the Carrageenan discussion in my opining is irrational. Millions of people have benefited from seaweed being a staple in the wholefood form for hundreds of years, and they will continue to do for hundreds more.
I firmly believe that consuming foods that have these nutrients in their natural balance is healthier, and safer than the higher concentrations manufactured outside of nature.
- “The Role of Carrageenan and Carboxymethylcellulose in the Development of Intestinal Inflammation” – J. V. Martino, J. V. Limbergen, L. E. Cahill, May 2017 [PubMed] [Frontiers in Pediatrics]
- “Review of Harmful Gastrointestinal Effects of Carrageenan in Animal Experiments” – J. K. Tobacman, October 2001 [Environmental Health Perspectives]
- “Carrageenan-induced ulceration of the large intestine in the guinea pig” – J. Watt, R. Marcus, 1 February 1971 [BMJ]
- “Clarifying the confusion between poligeenan, degraded carrageenan, and carrageenan: A review of the chemistry, nomenclature, and in vivo toxicology by the oral route” – J. M. McKim, J. A. Willoughby Sr., W. R. Blakemore, M. L. Weiner, 16 November 2018 [Taylor & Francis]
- “Is Carrageenan Safe?” – M. Greger, 31 July 2013 [NutritionFacts.org]
- “Carrageenan in Foods: Response” – J. K. Tobacman, April 2002 [ResearchGate]
- “The Role of Carrageenan in Inflammatory Bowel Diseases and Allergic Reactions: Where Do We Stand?” – B. Borsani, R. De Santis, V. Perico, F. Penagini, E. Pendezza, D. Dilillo, A. Bosetti, G. V. Zuccotti, E. D’Auria, 11 August 2021 [MDPI]
- “Chapter Three – Chondrus crispus – A Present and Historical Model Organism for Red Seaweeds” – J. Collén, M. L. Cornish, J. Craigie, E. Ficko-Blean, C. Hervé, S. A. Krueger-Hadfield, C. Leblanc, G. Michel, P. Potin, T. Tonon, C. Boyen, 2014 [Science Direct]
- “CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (21CFR172)” – US Food and Drug Administration, 1 October 2021 [FDA]
- “Let’s Be Clear On Carrageenan” – C. A. Hutt, 14 May 2013 [Marinalg International]
- “Re-evaluation of carrageenan (E 407) and processed Eucheuma seaweed (E 407a) as food additives” – M. Younes, P. Aggett, F. Aguilar, R. Crebelli, M. Filipič, M. J. Frutos, P. Galtier, D. Gott, U. Gundert-Remy, G. G. Kuhnle, C. Lambré, J. Leblanc, I. T. Lillegaard, P. Moldeus, A. Mortensen, A. Oskarsson, I. Stankovic, I. Waalkens-Berendsen, R. A. Woutersen, M. Wright, L. Brimer,.O. Lindtner, P. Mosesso, A. Christodoulidou, S. Ioannidou, F. Lodi, B. Dusemund, 26 April 2018 [EFSA]
- “The Organic Watergate – White Paper Connecting the Dots: Corporate Influence at the USDA’s National Organic Program” – The Cornucopia Institute, 15 May 2012 [Cornucopia White Paper] [Cornucopia.org]
- “Synthetic or Food-Derived Vitamin C – Are They Equally Bioavailable?” – A. C. Carr, M. C. M. Vissers, 28 October 2013 [PubMed]
- “Safety and toxicity of vitamin A supplements in pregnancy” – PubChem, 27 March 2005 [Food & Nutrition Bulletin]