What is carrageenan?
Carrageenan is a family of carbohydrates, consisting of a number of sugar molecules bonded together. This natural substance is extracted from red seaweed. Initially used by individuals living on the southern coast of Ireland, extracts of Irish moss seaweed have been used in food for hundreds of years
How is it used?
Used widely in food production, carrageenan is used to thicken, gel, and/or stabilize many foods. It is primarily used in dairy and meat products, and can also be a vegan and vegetarian alternative to gelatin in some applications.
Is carrageenan allowed in organic food production?
Yes, carrageenan has been allowed as a natural non-organic substance in organic processed products since 2003. Like other allowed non-organic substances, carrageenan is included in the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (a section of the USDA organic regulations). For the “organic” labeling category, at least 95 percent of the products content must be certified organic. The additional 5 percent may be composed of specifically allowed non-organic substances like carrageenan.
Who determines which substances are allowed in organic agriculture?
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is designed by law to advise USDA on which substances should be allowed or prohibited in organic production, handling and processing. Made up of dedicated public volunteers appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, board members include organic growers, handlers, retailers, environmentalists, scientists, USDA-accredited certifying agents and consumer advocates. The NOSB develops proposals that are open for public comment during their biannual public meetings.
NOSB members use specific criteria when voting whether to allow a substance in organic agriculture. These criteria include the need for the substance and its impacts on human health and the environment. In specific cases, the NOSB may vote to allow non-organic versions of a substance if it isn’t available in organic form on a scale large enough to support organic agriculture.
For organic crop and livestock production, the organic standards are designed to allow most natural substances while prohibiting most synthetic substances. The National List lists the exceptions to this basic rule. Some synthetic substances are listed as exceptions to the basic rule and are allowed for use in organic agriculture.
For instance, pheromones have long been used as an effective, non-toxic way to control insects that may otherwise infest organic crops, especially fruit. Likewise, vaccines for animals are important disease prevention tools against many infectious diseases, especially since antibiotic therapy is prohibited in organic livestock. Conversely, some substances like strychnine and arsenic are examples of natural, toxic substances that are prohibited in organic production.
For processed products, all ingredients must be certified organic except those specifically allowed per the National List. For example, baking soda—an allowed non-organic substance—lightens (or leavens) the dough for organic pancakes, baked goods, and other products. Carrageenan, another allowed natural non-organic substance, is on the same list as baking soda. Every 5 years, the NOSB reviews substances on the National List to determine if listings need to be changed or removed.
Are there health concerns associated with carrageenan?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows the use of carrageenan as a direct food additive. It is considered safe when used in the amount necessary to emulsify, stabilize, or thicken most foods.
During the NOSB’s recent review of carrageenan, some public commenters raised concerns regarding potential adverse health effects caused by the use of carrageenan, particularly degraded carrageenan, in food. Other comments cited evidence supporting the safety of food-grade carrageenan in food, and stated that degraded carrageenan is not used in food products.
Numerous other stakeholders stated that organic food producers relying on carrageenan don’t currently have functional alternatives to the substance. Subsequently, the NOSB recommended only allowing food grade carrageenan in organic products. Because the FDA regulations already require that all food ingredients be of food grade, this criteria is already met.
Some public commenters also cited food safety concerns with carrageenan in infant formula. The NOSB responded by recommending that carrageenan be prohibited in infant formula products, a decision based solely on these food safety concerns.
The FDA—the U.S. food safety authority—has carefully reviewed the available scientific studies and deemed this long-used ingredient safe in most foods, including infant formula. Additionally, FDA already requires that all ingredients be of food grade.
After reviewing a wide range of public comments, carrageenan will continue to be allowed in organic foods for five years (effective November 3, 2013).
How can I participate in the future?
Subscribe to the NOP Organic Insider and receive updates, including future public comment opportunities. http://bit.ly/NOPOrganicInsider