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MySuperFoods Reader Questions Answered: Carageenan and Ascorbic Acid

on May 13, 2013

questionCan you demystify words like “ascorbic acid”, “carageenan”, etc, which may not be unhealthy, but are unknown to most?

(Answered by Megan Kalocinski of MEGAN MONDAYS!)

This is a great question and I am glad it was asked, as there are more and more “mystery” ingredients that pop up on food labels.  With increasing heat from the public and certain health agencies to demand healthier foods and appropriate labeling of foods, food companies are realizing they need to become more savvy with the words used to describe or label particular ingredients.  While one would think the FDA would be on top of this more, there are so many loopholes to food labeling that it amazes me gasoline doesn’t sneak by in foods at times.  This is why it’s imperative that consumers stay as informed and educated as possible as to what is IN their food, and the best place to start is reading food labels to check for not only nutrition facts, but the list of what the food is made of.

One of my favorite books of all time (and a SUPER easy read, to boot) is “Food Rules” by Michael Pollan.  In this concise, yet extremely knowledgeable and easy-to-grasp book, one of Pollan’s food “rules” that I try to live by when buying any food in a package is, “If you can’t pronounce an ingredient or know what it is, you shouldn’t eat it.”  Seems simple enough, right?  Yet have you checked out the names of some of the ingredients on even seemingly healthy foods this day and age?!?  Hence, this is why I like this reader’s question asking what carrageenan and ascorbic acid are in particular, as they are common ingredients in many foods.

To start, carrageenan was once regarded as something completely safe, as it is commonly found in the following foods:  ice cream, half & half, cream, cottage cheese, chocolate milk, some hemp milks, rice milk, almond milk, soy milk, cheesecake, processed meats, hot dogs, frozen desserts, apple cider, jellies, prepared sauces, pies, puddings, SILK™ and some other brands of soymilk, coconut milk (some brands), Hershey’s Real Chocolate, Nesquik, non-dairy puddings, liquid coffee creamers, processed cheeses, frosting mixes, sherbets, jams, processed fish, yogurt, prepared pie fillings, and scariest of all, BABY FORMULAS.  In order to know if it is in ANY food that you eat, you HAVE TO READ THE LABELS!

Carrageenan is actually made from extracting it from red seaweed by powerful chemical alkali solvents – capable of removing skin as quick as any acid.  It’s used for food thickening and its fat and gelatin qualities. In its natural state as part of red seaweed, it’s healthy; in its processed state, it’s highly unhealthy to humans and in my opinion, should be avoided.  An easy comparison to remember is carrageenan is the vegetarian equivalent of casein – protein isolated from milk to thicken foods.  OK, so you may be thinking, “OK, big deal…what’s so bad about this!??!”  Well, have you ever flown in an airplane during the winter and got delayed due to “de-icing”?  Well, guess what was being sprayed all over the plane?  Yep, you guessed it – carrageenan.  It is the main ingredient used to de-ice frozen airplanes.  What enrages me is HOW IS A FOOD ADDITIVE ALSO AN AIRCRAFT DE-ICER!?!?  If you don’t believe me, check out the “official” explanation for de-icing aircraft by US Patent Office website: www.  In 1972, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed limiting the type of carrageenan that could be used in food. But the regulatory effort was rescinded in 1979.  High weight molecular forms of carrageenan are considered safe by the FDA. Low weight forms of carrageenan are considered dangerous – even soy milk manufacturer SILK admits this.

As if being used as an airplane de-icer isn’t bad enough, carrageenan is also used in cosmetics, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, toothpaste, room deodorizers, ulcer medications, petrolatum, and cod liver oil.  Its primary purpose in food preparations is to be used as a substitute for fat – combining with milk proteins, it increases solubility and improves texture of processed foods.

The actual health dangers linked to carrageenan include varieties of gastrointestinal disorders ranging from inflammatory bowel syndrome, colorectal malignancy, intestinal ulcerations, tumors and growths.  How this occurs is because scientific research shows carrageenan coats the insides of the stomach like a sticky substance – often causing digestive challenges. Many times, food allergies or sensitivities in the form of lower gastrointestinal discomfort are incorrectly linked to another ingredient (i.e. soy, etc.) when all along it may be carrageenan that is causing the reaction.  Additionally, carrageenan causes the pores in the intestinal tract to become larger; permitting larger molecules of undigested food to enter the bloodstream, which causes a burden on the lymphatic system, whose main function is to clear out “foreign invaders” from the bloodstream (thus impairing the immune system, which is never a good thing).

Don’t take it from me.  Here are numerous doctors who have conducted extensive scientific studies on the negative health effects carrageenan have.  Dr. Ray Peat, PhD, has discovered that carrageenan has been found to cause colitis (inflammation of the large intestine/colon) and anaphylaxis (life threatening allergic reaction) in humans.  Dr. Andrew Weil says, “Carrageenan can cause ulcerations and cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.”  Dr. Russell Blaylock in his book “Health and Nutrition Secrets That Can Save Your Life” notes, “Carrageenan is classified as a tumor promoter,” and he also discovered that carrageenan is an additive that may contain MSG.  Dr. Mercola writes: “A number of studies have found that the widely used food additive carrageenan causes cancer in food animals and its use in human foods should be reconsidered…enough evidence exists about the cancer-causing effects of carrageenan to limit the use of this food additive.  My advice – STAY AWAY FROM CARRAGEENAN.  It’s NOT healthy.

On a lighter note, now onto ascorbic acid – this one is nothing to fear, and one of the most common nutrients added to foods.  All the label “ascorbic acid” means is that it is a form of vitamin c.  Granted, it’s a synthetic form, but that does not mean it’s bad, unhealthy, or poses any risks (unless it is taken in excessive quantities, like someone overdoing it with supplements).  The vitamin C complex found in its natural state in foods is a woven net of nutrients, including organic copper, bioflavonoids, enzymes and coenzymes, trace mineral activators, antioxidants, etc. However, vitamin C is also one of the most “delicate” vitamins in the sense that it is lost out of foods during heating or processing, which is why ascorbic and/or citric acid is added back to foods to help restore the nutrient density.  To think why ascorbic acid is used out of the “web” of many components in natural vitamin C to be added to foods, it is only the preservative or anti-oxidant portion which actually serves to preserve the nutrients of this marvelous nutritional complex. If you take vitamin C vitamin pills, you are taking ascorbic acid.  Additionally, you will also see citric acid used in an ingredient list to accompany ascorbic acid or used in place of.  Here’s a little reference comparing ascorbic and citric acids (SOURCE: Fooducate):

1. Ascorbic acid (E300) and vitamin C are one and the same, and are an essential nutrient for humans.

2. Citric acid (E330) and ascorbic acid both occur naturally in citrus fruits, but there is no vitamin C in citric acid.

3. Citric acid is responsible for the tart and sour taste of lemons, and to a lesser extent other citrus fruits and some berries.

4. Contrary to popular belief, the best source for vitamin C is not oranges. Better sources are kiwis, bell peppers, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts.

5. Chemically, the only difference between ascorbic acid and citric acid is one additional oxygen atom in citric acid.

6. Citric acid is mainly used to add a tangy sour flavor to foods and soft drinks (50% of world production).

7. Unfortunately, vitamin C is very easily lost from fruits and vegetables when processed. That’s why in many products it is reintroduced as an additive.

8. Vitamin C tastes very bitter, just like most vitamins. In some cases, Citric acid is used to mask the bitter flavor of vitamin C pills.

9. Citric acid makes it easier for the body to absorb some minerals. For example, calcium citrate is sometimes added to orange juice.

10. Ascorbic acid in lemon juice is what keeps cut fruits and vegetables from turning brown. That’s why commercial food processing it is used as an antioxidant preservative.


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