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Is carrageenan safe for human health?

Carrageenan, one of the countrys top dollar-earning marine food thickener might drift against doubts following apparent adverse report of an American scientist. This development overshadows Department of Science and Technology-supported carrageenan research and development projects and threatens culture, production, and marketing aspects of the multimillion-dollar Philippine seaweed industry.

University of Iowas Dr. Joanne Tobacman in a report disclosed that rats fed with Poligeenan (an acid, peroxide hydrolyzed carrageenan) developed inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and eventually neoplasms or tumors. Monkeys given the same food developed liver cancer.

Carrageenan is a mixture of highly sulfated polygalactans (substances that comprise gums, agar, and fruit pectins obtained through elimination of water) extracted from seaweeds.� An algal polymer, carrageenan offers a wide range of rheological properties characterized by the ability to mix fluids and solids, which makes it ideal material as gelling agents, thickener and stabilizer or emulsifier in both food and non-food products.

Interest in Carrageenan is growing because of its positive interactions with different types of proteins and its thermally reversible gelling characteristics at low concentrations. These unique characteristics make carrageenan the practical choice over other substitutes.

Carrageenan production that started in the 1980s now accounts for 26% of global demand for human consumption and 44% for feeds and industrial use. Export revenues now exceed US$100 million annually and grows 9% to 13% each year.

PCAMRD studies showed the Philippines is currently the leading supplier of Eucheuma controlling 80% of world supply. Europe is the largest market for dried seaweed (70%) and Carrageenan (55%). Other major buyers of dried seaweeds are France, Hong Kong, Spain, USA, and Denmark. Total volume of dried seaweed shipped out in 2000 reached 48,400 tons.

The seaweed industry is a major source of livelihood to more than 100,000 families in economically disadvantaged islands mainly in the Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces in Southern Philippines. The Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao and Western Mindanao produce about 70% of the national output.

Carrageenan is an important functional material used for bakery products, processed meats, confectionery, and dairy products as emulsifier or thickener, clarifying and gelling agent, and stabilizer. Some industrial uses include film coating, culture media as agar substitute, water-based paints, personal care and pharmaceutical products, among others.

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