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FAO/WHO: Carrageenan Safe in Infant Formula

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At its 79th meeting in June, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) completed an in-depth review of the science related to the safety of carrageenan and found it safe for use in infant formula, including formula for special medical purposes.

After reviewing available research on carrageenan safety, particularly a new study of piglets that is representative of human infants consuming carrageenan in infant formula, JECFA concluded that “the use of carrageenan in infant formula or formula for special medical purposes at concentrations up to 1000 mg/L is not of concern."

The safety of carrageenan—a soluble fiber made from red seaweed and used as a stabilizer in food—has been a topic of much debate. In 2012, FDA rejected a petition filed by Joanne Tobacman, Ph.D., a physician-scientist at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, asking the agency to revoke regulation permitting the use of carrageenan as a food additive. Tobacman claimed carrageenan and its breakdown product created dangerous inflammation.

The ingredient stirred so much commotion that some manufacturers removed or pledged to remove it from their organic products, particularly within the dairy foods/drinks segment.

And the controversy hasn’t blown over yet—at least, not completely. According to information in the March issue of the Boardroom Journal, “Navigating Consumer Activism," carrageenan is one of several ingredients on consumers’ social media “hit lists," meaning it’s been picking up negative buzz across various social media platforms. Other ingredients to make the hit list include high-fructose corn syrup, brominated vegetable oil and MSG, among others.

Some critics of carrageenan have cited scientific findings in regulatory comments or in social media that refer to animal testing using poligeenan, a substance sometimes improperly referred to as “degraded carrageenan" that is never used in foods. However, research has shown that food grade carrageenan is safe and binds so tightly to protein that it cannot be broken down into poligeenan during digestion.

“The carrageenan we use today in food has undergone strenuous review by numerous regulatory agencies around the world and in every single case it has been declared safe," said Marinalg International President Bill Matakas. “Its unique abilities to stabilize food, to replace fat or to extend shelf life in certain uses make it an important asset in not just the enjoyment of food, but also in the effort to provide safe, affordable food—including infant formula—to all parts of the world."

As recently as 2013, U.S. regulatory agencies continued approval of carrageenan for use in organic infant formula and other organic foods.

JECFA is a scientific review panel that evaluates the safety of food additives. Its reports are used to guide food additive regulatory approvals around the world. Carrageenan was one of four food additives reviewed in 2014 for use in infant formula by a special JECFA committee.

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