Carrageenan & PES Fact Sheet

What is Carrageenan?

• Carrageenan is a soluble fiber that is extracted from red seaweed and used as a stabilizer, thickener and gelling agent to enhance the texture and palatability of many foods and beverages.

What is PES?

• PES, which stands for processed Eucheuma seaweed, is also known as semi-refined carrageenan (SRC) in parts of the world. PES is a type of carrageenan that retains more insoluble matter from the seaweed plant structure than traditional carrageenan which is extracted from the seaweed into an aqueous solution. Carrageenan and PES are approved food additives and differ primarily based on solubility. Because they are closely related, they are often referred to simply as carrageenan by regulatory and scientific bodies.

Why is carrageenan in my food?

• Carrageenan has numerous functional benefits when used as a food ingredient, such as maintaining the structure and stability of food, thickening foods to provide desired consistency and texture that consumers expect, aiding in fat reduction, and improving shelf-life.

Carrageenan can also accommodate dietary choices and restrictions. For vegetarians or vegans, it may be used as a thickening agent in place of animal-based products, like gelatin. Carrageenan is also not genetically modified and is permitted in organic products. Further, it is an accepted ingredient for halal and kosher diets.

Another important use of carrageenan is in infant and follow-up formulas. In these products, carrageenan is added as a stabilizing agent to liquid formulations, assuring that the nutrients and other ingredients in the formula do not separate (which could potentially lead to unequal nutrition delivery). Carrageenan’s functionality is critical to ensuring that vital nutrients remain stable and are properly delivered to infants, many of whom consume infant formula as their sole source of nutrition.

Is carrageenan safe?

• With a long history of safe use, there is no credible evidence that food-grade carrageenan causes harm to human health—the overwhelming weight of the scientific evidence confirms the safety of carrageenan used in food.

Regulatory bodies around the world, including those in the United States, Europe, China, Japan and Brazil, have reviewed the available scientific literature and have determined that carrageenan is safe for use in food, including infant formula. In July 2014, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA)—an international expert scientific committee administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO)—determined carrageenan is safe for use in all populations, including very young infants. Infant formula is a product intended for the most sensitive human population. To be approved for use in infant formula, an ingredient must meet an extremely high burden of safety. Approval for use in products intended for such a sensitive population should give consumers of all ages confidence about the safety of the carrageenan they consume.

What other scientific and regulatory bodies have affirmed carrageenan’s safety?

• In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Marketing Service and Food Safety and Inspection Services have codified provisions allowing the use of carrageenan in foods under their jurisdictions. In its recent final opinion dated April 2018, the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food (ANS Panel) noted no safety concerns regarding carrageenan and PES. Carrageenan has also been approved by the Japan Ministry of Health, the Brazilian Health Surveillance Agency, Health Canada, Food Standards Australia/New Zealand, the China Ministry of Health and others. A brief history of of carrageenan’s safety and approval determinations can be found here.

If carrageenan is approved as safe and is naturally-derived from seaweed, what is the cause of any negative attention?

• Most misunderstandings about the safety of carrageenan are reported in the media, and are a result of misinterpreted research or the ingredient’s mischaracterization. Some have mistaken carrageenan for another seaweed-derived substance called poligeenan which is not produced biologically. Unlike carrageenan, poligeenan is produced using an aggressive process and strong acids. Poligeenan is never used in food. Further, because poligeenan can only be produced in the presence of high temperatures and strong acids for extended time, it cannot be produced during digestion as these conditions simply do not exist in the human body.

Some scientific studies have used quantities of carrageenan that greatly overestimate the amount a person would ever consume, or administer carrageenan to test subjects in ways that are not representative of how humans consume it in food (e.g., large amounts of carrageenan mixed with water without food or injecting carrageenan sub-dermally). Because carrageenan binds tightly to protein when incorporated into food, resulting in a large molecule that is not broken down until very late in the digestive tract, scientifically valid studies of carrageenan must examine carrageenan as it would appear in the body—a large molecule consisting of carrageenan bound to protein that is present in food. When administered in water, without food or the presence of protein, such studies are not representative of the actual forms carrageenan reaches the consumer in – which is either a food and beverage.

Is carrageenan a carcinogen?

• No. Carrageenan has been falsely identified by certain groups as a carcinogen. Most of these groups cite the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a source for this claim, but IARC’s findings clearly state, “Native (undegraded) carrageenan…was tested for carcinogenicity in rats and hamsters by administration in the diet; no evidence of carcinogenicity was found.” In its recent final opinion of carrageenan and PES, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) confirmed that “there was no concern with respect for the carcinogenicity for carrageenan.”

Is carrageenan sustainable?

• The red seaweed used to make carrageenan is a naturally occurring ocean plant. It is produced using sustainable aquaculture, and it is grown and harvested in warm ocean waters by an estimated 350,000 family farms on five continents. Red seaweed is produced without the need for fertilizer, arable land, pesticides or fresh water. In addition, seaweed farming provides the primary economic base for thousands of coastal communities and family-owned farms, many of which are in Asia, and plays an important role in sustaining their families and communities.