As with most commercial pet food ingredients, carrageenan has had its share of advocates and detractors. And this is why it’s listed under dodgy ingredients instead of ‘flee-for-your-lives’ bad ingredients–some say it’s bad, but others say it’s okay.
Well, what really is it?
Carrageenan is just a fancy word for ‘red seaweed’ (at least it makes me feel smart when I type it!).
Hmm okay, so it’s not very red. (Pic source: seaweed.ie)
Carrageenan is frequently used for gelling or thickening purposes, so you’ll find them in items like condensed milk, ice cream, and pates.
You’ll also find them in soymilk (Pic source: wisegeek) and frequently carrageenan is added just so that it resembles cow milk.
Interestingly, you’ll also find them in shampoo (thickener, remember? don’t you just love a thick, luscious lather?) and things like shoe polish.
It’s a humble little plant that has 1001 uses!
The question is, should it be in your pet’s food?
I’m not going to name names, but it’s very difficult to find a good food without carrageenan. More frequently you’ll find carrageenan in certain textures like pate, as opposed to chunky or shredded canned products.
Weruva sliced chicken strips
Pate foie gras. Notice how the meat sticks together in a paste-like consistency? Carrageenan helps that. Think of it as something like cornflour. You’ll find carrageenan in kibble as well, of course. The squishy meat-and-flour paste need something else to hold ’em together in order to be baked at high temperatures to make kibble nuggets.
Carrageenan has a bad rep because it is a possible carcinogenic agent (cancer-causing agent). According to the Cornucopia Institute–the International Agency for Research on Cancer–carrageenan has shown to increase rates of cancer in poor lab animals. Moreover, carrageenan has also been linked to various unpleasant problems such as uclers and gastrointestinal upsets.
In case you’re interested, my fellow countrymen,
AGAR-AGAR IS FULL OF CARRAGEEEEEEENAN.
For non-Singaporean readers, this is what agar-agar powder is supposed to look like in jelly form:
Pretty right? (Pic source: Flickriver.com)
This picture tells me just how untalented I am at cooking. These are agar-agar flowers. You know, I can’t even get agar to unstick itself from the pan. AND SOMEONE MADE FLOWERS OUT OF THEM? *kowtows* (Pic source: NuWoo Gift Idea)
To understand carrageenan better, there are actually two types of carrageenan: undegraded (high molecular weight) and degraded. In fact, degraded, low-molecular weight carrageenan (that means it’s been broken down with acids and/or high temperatures) is frequently used to induce inflammation in animal experiments.
Many studies have proven this to be so–that carrageenan predictably cause horrible diseases in lab animals and pets. In fact, carrageenan has been used for ages to provoke inflammation in lab animals in order to study the effectiveness of anti-inflammatory medication!
Get away from me, thou dangerous plant!
So of course, degraded carrageenan is not something you’d want to be best of friends with.
But pet food companies are quick to say that nope–their food is made of undegraded carrageenan. Moreover, carrageenan is listed as an approved pet food source by the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), and has been used as a food source by pet and human food companies for the longest time.
(Actually, what do you really expect them to say? If I were in their position, I’d probably say the same. PLUS, there are companies out there who do try to provide good food for their pets.)
So assuming that the carrageenan that pet food companies use are indeed undegraded, should you still worry? Are there any side effects from undegraded carrageenan?
Problem number 1:
Carrageenan is thought to pass through human bodies undisturbed. BUT, some people with iron stomaches–you know who you are!–have stronger stomach acids. These acids break down the carrageenan in the stomach and…
To quote HealthCentral.com,
“For others the stomach acid is a little stronger than other people and so their stomach breaks the molecule down further, allowing it to be passed into the blood when it normally wouldn’t be, and as a result it turns into a carcinogen that the body attacks with an immune response…”
And so you get things like eczema and stomachaches for humans, and other general irritable insides for pets (HELLO, MESSY KITTY POOP!), ulcers and even cancer.
The thing is…
Well, as we’ve established in The Dangers of Pathogens (part 1) pet stomach acids are stronger than human stomach acids, which range from 1.3-3.5. Pet cats and dogs have a range of 0.07-2.5.
So since pet stomach acids are stronger than most humans’, and humans have been found to have adverse reactions from carrageenan, it is logical to assume that pets stomach acids can degrade undegraded carrageenan when consumed–and fall sick.
Carrageenan is broken down when subject to acids or high temperatures. Kibble and canned are treated at high, high temperatures…
To quote Harmful effects of carrageenan fed to animals. by Watt J, Marcus R:
“Degraded carrageenan as a drug or food additive has been restricted in the United States by the FDA, but undegraded carrageenan is still widely used throughout the world as a food additive. Its harmful effects in animals are almost certainly associated with its degradation during passage through the gastrointestinal tract.There is a need for extreme caution in the use of carrageenan or carrageenan-like products as food additives in our diet.”
Problem number 2:
Even undegraded carrageenan has been linked to cancer.
To quote Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments by Dr Joanne Tobacman, MD, professor at University of Iowa College of Medicine:
“Because of the acknowledged carcinogenic properties of degraded carrageenan in animal models and the cancer-promoting effects of undegraded carrageenan in experimental models, the widespread use of carrageenan in the Western diet should be reconsidered.”
There are also lab-rat studies that have found undegraded carrageenan enhances the rates of colon cancer.
[Note: These studies have been criticized for being animal-based only and results may not be extrapolated to humans. But that’s the point of this blog. You’re feeding your dog/cat carrageenan, AND the studies are about animals! Precisely!]
AT THE SAME TIME,
Some people and experts such as those from Marinalg International (they represent producers of seaweed-derived food products) believe that since carrageenan has been used for a long time on pets and human beings safely, there is no need for undue worry.
Well now, how should I say this? By ‘safely’ I would assume that there are no mass reports of pets falling ill from carrageenan like that of the 2007 Melamine pet food scare, or people falling sick en masse from carrageenan. It is hard to isolate that particular food component from the entire product. If you had diarrhea after drinking soymilk, you probably wouldn’t think of carrageenan, either.
Besides, pets react to foods differently. Some can eat beef, and some cannot–and thus some can tolerate carrageenan reasonably well, yet others cannot. I have met cats who survived to a ripe old age–massive, ponderous things–feasting daily on the worst of the worst cat kibble.
This is Skinny the cat, proving that some people enjoy irony. (Source: Huffington post)
You can always look at the situation and say: Good gracious heavens what a blimp! But hey, it’s still alive, you know? So cereal and by-product can’t be all that dangerous? And since I’ve probably eaten a lot of carrageenan and not died, it can’t be all that dangerous?
Sure, you can–remember that this is a ‘dodgy ingredients’ post, not STAY-THE-HELL-AWAY post.
Still, what is pressing is that, since studies have found consistently that undegraded carrageenan STILL causes suppression of immune systems, horrible digestion and cancer…
TRE’s question to you is:
Despite government reviews that carrageenan is safe, why risk it? If your pet is going to eat the same canned and kibble for a long time…chances are that the now non-toxic carrageenan may build up to the bursting point, and you may be saddled with pet cancer/chronic irritable bowel syndrom/renal failure/etc.
Over the weekend we had the pleasure of talking to some pet-lovin’ TRE readers, and one of the most common topics was about how expensive pet health care is…can you really afford even $1000 (by the way $1000 runs out really quickly when it comes to vet fees) to treat a pet’s chronic illness? Cancer? Recurring diarrhea? What happens if you can’t afford it?
And even if you can afford it, I doubt if you want to go through the heartache of watching your pet waste away (unless you don’t really care, at which I’d ask you why you are even reading this blog).
So…why risk it?
For readers who’ve told us that you are health-conscious but care more about your pets’ dietary needs than your own, you may want to also avoid carrageenan if you can, especially if you like soymilk and drink it on a regular basis. Carrageenan has strong links to breast cancer (in animal cell studies, because remember, no human wants to be guinea pig for cancer testing), and in 2007 carrageenan was banned in baby formulas in Europe. I guess it’s also no harm listing some non-carrageenan brands of soy milk that I’ve seen in local supermarkets:
- Vitasoy (YAY cheap!)
- Soy Dream
Silk has carrageenan. Very sad, because TRE’s resident blogger (A.k.A yours truly here) loveeeeees SILK soymilk and used to drink it every morning.
Happy shopping for both yourself and your pet!
Dogs Naturally Magazine
Carrageenan-induced innate immune response is modified by enzymes that hydrolyze distinct galactosidic bonds. By Bhattacharyya S, Liu H, Zhang Z, Jam M, Dudeja PK, Michel G, Linhardt RJ, Tobacman JK.
Harmful effects of carrageenan fed to animals. by Watt J, Marcus R
Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments. by Tobacman JK.
The Cornucopia Institute
Truth about pet food
UCSB Science Line
Categories: Dodgy Ingredients