Carrageenan, generally recognizes as safe by the FDA, is a purified red seaweed extract that is used as a thickener and stabilizer in a variety of foods and beverages - primarily meat and dairy products. The Joint Food & Agricultural Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives determined there was no need to set an upper limit on the amount of carrageenan a human can safely consume when carrageenan is used "at the level needed to achieve its intended effect in food", it said.
But the seaweed-based ingredient has been the subject of criticism among natural-food advocates who claim it causes gastrointestinal inflammation and other problems. Among the more outspoken critics of the ingredient have been activist food blogger Vani Hari (who also recently spearheaded the petition asking Subway to remove dough conditioner azodicarbonamide from its bread) and the Cornucopia Institute (see more below).
A WhiteWave spokesperson said that while the company still deems the ingredient safe, it will be phased out over time because of increasingly "strong" consumer reactions.
"When you get to a certain point of how vocal and strongly a consumer feels about it, we felt it was time to make a change," Sarah Loveday told the Associated Press.
Although WhiteWave didn't specify the actual phaseout timeline, an email attachment from the company that Hari posted on her website said the firm plans to remove carrageenan from Horizon flavored milk in Q1 2015 and all other Horizon items by Q2 2015, including eggnog, Tuberz, heavy whipping cream, regular and low-fat cottage cheese and low-fat sour cream; from the top 5 Silk ESL soy and coconut beverages by Q2 2015; and from the remaining Silk aseptic and other ESL products by the end of 2016.
In her attacks on the seaweed-based ingredient, Hari has largely referred to research from Cornucopia. The food industry watchdog group last year sought to reignite the debate over carrageenan with a report imploring consumers to avoid it based on arguments from a 2008 citizen’s petition filed by Joanne Tobacman, MD, a researcher at the University of Illinois, who claimed the ingredient promotes inflammation of the GI tract, which could
ultimately lead to diseases from ulcerative colitis to colon cancer.
In a letter to Dr Tobacman dated June 11, 2012, rejecting her request, the FDA said her studies - which were all in-vitro ("test tube") studies exposing human colonic epithelial cells to carrageenan - were of “limited value” when trying to determine the safety of ingesting foods containing the ingredient.
And while concerns have been raised about a lower-weight polysaccharide called poligeenan, studies conducted on animals and artificial stomachs suggested that carrageenan - a high-molecular weight polysaccharide - did not show “extensive” breakdown into poligeenan when we eat products that contain it, said the FDA.
Still, in an effort to reassure people, Marinalg International, an association representing producers of seaweed derived hydrocolloids, said it would coordinate new research specifically to address the points raised by Dr Tobacman.