Pros & cons of carrageenan weighed at NOSB ahead of vote to delist it

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pros & cons of carrageenan weighed at NOSB ahead of vote to delist it

Related tags: Organic food, Organic certification, National organic program

Advocates for and against allowing organic products to continue using the non-organic thickener carrageenan argued their cases in front of the National Organic Standards Board Wednesday ahead of the advisory committee’s vote on the issue Thursday.

Those in favor of removing the ingredient from the National List of permitted non-organic material -- as recommended in a 5 to 2 vote by the NOSB subcommittee -- argued that the seaweed-based thickener is harmful to humans and nonessential to organic formulation.

Those in favor of keeping the ingredient on the National List lined up at the Fall NOSB meeting in St. Louis Nov. 16 to highlight its irreplaceable functional benefits and safety, and outlined how removing the ingredient from the National List would create an uneven playing field between organic and conventional manufacturers.

Safety debated

In comments submitted ahead of the meeting, Linley Dixon of the Cornucopia Institute argues, “decades of publicly funded scientific research [shows] biological reactivity in human cells, causing harm to human health.”

Dixon also discounts industry-funded research​ that suggests studies showing glucose intolerance related to carrageenan cannot be replicated “is simply not true.”

The institute further supports its argument that carrageenan is unsafe by pointing to two new studies concluded since the Spring NOSB meeting in which the issue also was discussed at length. One study published in Gastroenterology found an association between carrageenan and a relapse in ulcerative colitis. The other, published in Molecular Nutritional Food Research found food grade carrageenan “may reduce protein and peptide bioaccessibility, disrupt normal epithelial function, promote intestinal inflammation and compromise consumer health.”

James McKim, president of IONTOX Laboratories and a biochemical and molecular toxicologist, defended his research that tried and failed to reproduce the ill-effects allegedly caused by carrageenan. As such, he argued that carrageenan does not cause inflammation or block insulin.

NOSB’s Handling Subcommittee also argued the ingredient is safe and that the scientific evidence does not support claims of widespread negative human health of carrageenan, Susan Finn, director of United 4 Food Science, reminded NOSB in a presentation at the meeting.

Nick Gardner, manager of regulatory affairs for the International Food Additives Council, echoed these sentiments, adding: “Carrageenan has been determined to be safe by regulatory authorities, scientists and expert reviewers from around the world, and is approved for use in food by all major regulatory and standard-setting bodies.”

Viable alternatives

While the subcommittee agrees on carrageenan’s safety, it argued that the ingredient should be delisted because there are sufficient viable alternatives -- a point with which many supporters of the ingredient disagree.

“Delisting carrageenan would force organic formulators to use inferior alternatives,”​ added Gardner, who also serves as the General Manager for Marinalg International, a trade association representing companies that produce seaweed derived hydrocolloids, including carrageenan.

He explained, “Although non-organic alternatives exist, organic alternative are not available for most applications. Many formulators who have tried to replace carrageenan in their formulations have found that non-organic alternatives do not perform as well leading to product discontinuations.  In other cases, formulators have been forced to use more non-organic ingredients to achieve the same functionality as a small amount of carrageenan.”

Finn agreed, noting that unlike some alternatives, carrageenan is effective in small amounts and does not require additional additives to fulfill its function.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association also argued at the meeting that the technological functions of carrageenan make it “essential for manufacturing organic food products.”

Specifically, Mano Basu, GMA’s technical lead for consumer product safety and regulatory affairs, said at the meeting that carrageenan produces stable structures and suspends particles within a solution “to ensure that the consumer is getting the right concentration of nutrients.”

This becomes a safety issue with regards to food for infants, the elderly and people with medical needs who are primarily on a liquid or semi-liquid diet, Basu added.

“There may be alternatives, but none that work as well as carrageenan does,”​ Basu said.

Variety promotes fair competition

Allowing organic manufacturers to use carrageenan also evens the competitive playing field with conventional products by allowing consumers to choose organic products without sacrificing taste, Finn said.

“If organic products cannot contain the same additives that non-organic foods do, they will be at a distinct disadvantage in the marketplace,”​ Finn said. “The NOSB should not set a precedent that makes it difficult for organic foods to compete with non-organic foods on a nutrient delivery and sensory profile.”

NOSB will vote on whether to follow the subcommittee’s recommendation to delist carrageenan or leave it be Thursday afternoon or Friday morning.

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