The Cornucopia Institute (CI) has issued a report that questions the safety of food-grade or undegraded carrageenan, “a common food additive extracted from red seaweed.” Titled “Carrageenan: How a ‘Natural’ Food Additive is Making Us Sick,” the report claims that animal studies “have repeatedly shown that food-grade carrageen causes gastrointestinal inflammation and higher rates of intestinal lesions, ulcerations, and even malignant tumors.”

Distinguishing between undegraded and degraded carrageen—which the report describes as “a potent inflammatory” processed with acid instead of alkali—CI emphasizes that even the food-grade version poses a health risk to consumers who ingest the additive in a wide variety of products, including dairy and dairy alternatives, deli meats, and prepared soups and broths. In particular, the report points to a 2001 literature review published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that purportedly warned against “‘the widespread use of carrageenan in the Western diet’ due to evidence that ‘exposure to undegraded as well as degraded carrageenan was associated with the occurrence of intestinal ulcerations and neoplasms.’”

“A convincing body of scientific literature shows negative effects caused by food-grade carrageenan,” states the report, which faults the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for ignoring recent research in favor of industry-funded studies. “Moreover, scientists are concerned that the acid environment of the stomach may ‘degrade’ food-grade carrageenan once it enters the digestive system, thus exposing the intestines to this potent and widely recognized carcinogen.”

As a result, CI has since written a formal letter to FDA, asking the agency to reevaluate a 2008 citizen petition that sought to remove carrageenan from the food supply. Disputing FDA’s June 11, 2012, decision to deny the petition, the letter argues that FDA did not consider all of the available scientific literature and ultimately failed to detect alleged biases in studies funded by industry interests. According to CI, the agency not only dismissed industry data on the contamination of food-grade carrageenan with degraded carrageenan, but misinterpreted an industry-backed study allegedly showing “consumption of food-grade carrageenan leads to exposure to degraded carrageenan in the intestinal tract.”

“[T]here are no benefits to society or public health from adding carrageenan to foods or beverages. It is added solely to change the texture of food,” concludes the letter. “Already, some food manufacturers are replacing carrageenan with other thickeners and stabilizers, or eliminating thickeners altogether and asking their consumers to shake the product before consumption. If carrageenan is prohibited, the food industry will quickly adapt.”