The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) on Nov. 17 voted 10 to 3 to remove the controversial food additive carrageenan from the list of approved ingredients in organic foods. Carrageenan, a soluble fiber made from red seaweed, is commonly added to processed foods as a stabilizing or thickening agent, particularly processed dairy products and other viscous items like protein shakes and non-dairy milk alternatives.
The safety of carrageenan has been a topic of much debate. Its compatibility with organic principles has been brought into question by organic advocates for years. Studies have raised significant concerns that carrageenan consumption may pose certain health risks, such as intestinal inflammation and inflammatory bowel disease. 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.
As recently as 2013, U.S. regulatory agencies continued approval of carrageenan for use in organic infant formula and other organic foods. In June 2014, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) found carrageenan 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."
What Does This Mean To Industry
The board’s recommendation is now in the hands of USDA, which has until November 2018 to make a final rule on whether carrageenan should be removed.
The Center for Food Safety (CFS) said the vote to end the allowance of carrageenan is part of the participatory process that underlies the development of U.S. organic standards. Non-organic substances that are determined, through rigorous review, to not be harmful to human health, to not have negative environmental impacts, and to be truly essential to organic production, are given a temporary exemption for use in organic for five years. Before the substance's 5-year exemption period ends, the NOSB must review new information and determine whether its exemption should be continued for another 5-year term. Carrageenan’s latest 5-year exemption ends in 2018, so NOSB took up its review at last week's meeting. With this important vote, it is now in USDA's hands to issue a proposed rule change for notice and comment as the next step in the removal process.
“The board’s recognition that carrageenan is not essential to organic, as evidenced by the ability of many manufacturers to eliminate it from their products, is an enormous victory for organic integrity," said Cameron Harsh, senior manager for organic and animal policy at CFS.
A statement from the Grocery Manufacturers Association said: “Carrageenan should remain on the National Organic Standards Board list of approved food additives because it has been proven safe for consumption and there is not an adequate alternative replacement that provides the same functions. Regulatory agencies and research organizations around the world have consistently determined carrageenan is a safe and highly functional food additive."
Calling the recommendation “a loss for sound food science," United 4 Food Science issued the statement: “The National Organic Standards Board bowed to activist pressure and dubious science today and voted to remove carrageenan from the National List of ingredients approved for use in organic products. Despite agreeing with decades of science proving carrageenan is safe, the Board has set a dangerous precedent. The Board’s recommendation would make it difficult for organic food products to compete with non-organic products on sensory attributes such as taste and texture. And this outcome may lead to consumers deselecting organic foods altogether, which runs counter to the National Organic Program’s mission."
All About Carrageenan
Carrageenans are a specialized category of hydrocolloids that originate from red seaweed (Rhodophycae). Carrageenan in its various forms provides the physical characteristics food scientists need when formulating food and beverage products that require gelling or added viscosity. The use of carrageenan in food dates back to approximately 400 A.D. in Ireland. Early Irish cooks discovered they could extract a thickener similar to carrageenan from Irish moss. Since the 1970s, food and beverage companies have discovered that carrageenan is useful for its superior gelling and thickening properties. It is these qualities that make it useful for use in frozen desserts, dairy- or soy-based beverages, baked goods and even formed proteins.
For more information, read INSIDER’s article “About Carrageenan."