The controversy around carrageenan continues to swirl back and forth, with the only concrete result being that it confuses and worries more and more users, past and present.

Igennus Echiomega contains food-grade carrageenan as a minor emulsifying ingredient (32.5mg) in the capsule shell; given the arguments both for and against carrageenan, it was necessary to make an informed, scientific decision regarding the need to change to an alternative for the capsule shell. It took up a lot of R&D resources reviewing the studies and unravelling the story to help us determine the necessary steps for Echiomega. Whilst the story itself is quite complex, here is a brief summary of why we came to the conclusion that food-grade carrageenan is safe (other than for those with a specific allergy to it, as is the case with many common ingredients), and we will continue to use it in the capsule shell.

There are several studies that form the basis of the argument about carrageenan being unsafe but it’s important, first, to note the following:

  1. there is a difference between food-grade carrageenan and poligeenan (the latter is also termed degraded carrageenan) and the debate centres around the safety of the smaller particle size of poligeenan. Whilst poligeenan/degraded carrageenan has a molecular weight of 10,000-20,000 daltons, food-grade carrageenan has a much larger molecular weight ranging from 200,000-800,000 daltons (i.e a completely different chemical structure);
  2. natural food-grade carrageenan is derived from red seaweed and poligeenan is produced from carrageenan by a laboratory-based process that cannot happen naturally and, as such, has never been demonstrated to occur naturally in humans or animals (so cannot occur simply by eating/ingesting natural carrageenan);
  3. poligeenan is not carrageenan. Poligeenan, with its smaller molecular weight, was developed to promote inflammation for use in animal toxicology studies for clinical diagnostic  applications, and has never been an approved food additive, has never been used as a food additive and is therefore not present in ANY food or supplement products. Consumed carrageenan cannot convert to poligeenan.

Now let’s take a look at the studies:

  • In 2001 Dr Joanne Tobacman published a review of ‘the harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments’, in which she summarised the findings from around 50 animal studies. However, when looking at the methodology from each individual study [as these are not reported in the review, we had to source this information from original papers], we find that those papers using poligeenan demonstrated harmful effects in animal models [for which it was developed] but those studies using carrageenan failed to demonstrate any harmful effects. The confusion arises because Tobacman did not distinguish between the two forms and simply stated that the studies used carrageenan
  • Natural food-grade carrageenan has been extensively reviewed by numerous regulatory bodies (including the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives [JECFA]) and has an extensive safety profile, meaning that it is completely safe to be used in food and supplements consumed by humans
  • JECFA have reviewed Tobacman’s work (the original study), performed an independent review and found that carrageenan (unlike poligeenan) is indeed safe for human consumption, and should not be confused with poligeenan
  • Though some studies have suggested that food-grade carrageenan is contaminated with non-food-grade poligeenan, Uno et al, 2001 examined 29 samples of food-grade carrageenan and found the average molecular weight to be 453,000 – 652,000 daltons and no poligeenan was detectable.

Carrageenan is used in nutritional supplements and foods as a thickener and/or stabiliser. Like most dietary fibres, it has no nutritional value, cannot be digested or broken down by humans and simply passes through the gastrointestinal system unchanged, unlike degraded carrageenan/poligeenan, which is not used in foods or nutritional supplements and which is subject to acid hydrolysis at low pH and high temperatures for extended periods of time.

Unearthing the science behind the anti-carrageenan claims has been a challenge; only by tracing the science right back to the source can we be confident that the negative messages associated with carrageenan have arisen because of confusion around incorrect use of the word carrageenan as an ‘umbrella’ term, to encompass both ‘natural carrageenan’ (safe) and ‘poligeenan’/ ‘degraded carrageenan’ (harmful).  Unfortunately rather than providing key science, many articles found on the internet continue to regurgitate (and often embellish) information from other inaccurate articles.

We understand that it can be difficult to come to a conclusion based on what is found on the internet and that stories making headline news may seem compelling; as nutritional specialists and serious about what we do, we consider it incumbent on us to look behind the headlines to determine a correct response – whether validation or rejection, as is the case here. One of our main principles is to follow science, not hype – we are confident in continuing to offer Echiomega in its current formulation.

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