The compound in question is carrageenan, a seaweed-derived ingredient used to create a better texture, or "mouthfeel," in low-fat dairy products and dairy alternatives like soymilk. Often found in things like chocolate milk, sour cream, creamers, yogurt, ice cream, and juices, carrageenan helps keep different ingredients in suspension so they don't separate, eliminating the need to shake the product before you consume it. "I bet most moms who choose organic food would rather shake the container than have it include an ingredient that might place their children at risk," says Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute. "Not a very high level of inconvenience to provide a pure and natural food to your family."
To be sure, carrageenan use is rampant in nonorganic food and drinks, and used in only some organic products. Cornucopia Institute used the carrageenan case in its most recent report, though, to highlight the fact that corporate interests can sometimes promote less-than-ideal ingredients for inclusion under the National Organic Standards Board's list of approved ingredients. Nonetheless, Kastel agrees that organic is still far safer than conventional counterparts. "Independent testing consistently proves that organic food has demonstrably lower levels of any kind of toxic agrichemical and contaminants, and of course, organic commodities are not produced with genetically modified organisms," he says.
The Truth about Natural Foods
Carrageenan has been used by the food industry for nearly 50 years and, during that time, has been extensively studied. Although researchers have reliably proven that dietary doses of carrageenan can lead to harmful inflammation, the additive is still approved for use in foods. Carrageenan so reliably causes inflammation that scientists actually use it to induce inflammation in biological experiments, explains Joanne Tobacman, MD, a physician-scientist at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, who has been studying the effects of carrageenan in human cells and lab animals for nearly 20 years.
In a recent statement to the National Organic Standards Board, Dr. Tobacman explained that carrageenan itself and its breakdown product both create dangerous inflammation, a condition that serves as the backbone of more than 100 human diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and arteriosclerosis. Inflammation also fuels other life-threatening diseases, including cancer.
In addition, Kastel says, harvesting the seaweed for carrageenan has been shown to damage coral reefs.
While some organic products do contain carrageenan, organic standards prohibit the use of harmful ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, petroleum-based fake food dyes, and artificial flavors, along with other harmful ingredients that have been linked to heart damage, ADHD, and other health problems. Still, if you'd like to avoid carrageenan in organic foods, simply read the label or choose from some of these carrageenan-free organic picks below.
Organic Foods Free of Carrageenan:
• Castle Rock Organic Farms
• Crystal Ball Farms
• Strafford Organic Creamery
• Trickling Springs Creamery
• Organic Valley
• Organic Valley (pasteurized only...ultrapasteurized contains carrageenan)
• Butterworks Farm
• Strauss Family Creamery
• Green & Black's Organic
• Julie's (except mint fudge, mocha fudge and peanut butter fudge)
• Seven Stars
• Stonyfield (all brands except caramel Oikos and Squeezers)
• Horizon (all except Tuberz)
See Cornucopia's working list of organic foods made with and without carrageenan.
Fight to Keep Organic Strong
While Kastel reiterates that organic is not perfect, it still means eating food grown without toxic chemicals, GMOs, human sewage sludge, antibiotics, and hormones. "That's why we say saving the organic label is worth fighting for," he says. "Even with its flaws, the organic-certification movement is worth fighting to protect."
Visit Cornucopia Institute to print out, sign, and send in a letter that Kastel says will help pressure the United States Department of Agriculture to keep the organic label strong.