Carrageenan is a common ingredient in canned cat food. There's been a lot of controversy about this ingredient, but arguments have not always been factual. So let's take a look and see if we can't get to the truth!
Carragreenan is an edible red seaweed called "Irish Moss." Of course, seaweed contains lots of trace minerals and is very nutritious, so what's not to like about it? After all, it's been used for cooking for hundreds of years.
When cooked, carrageenan takes on a smooth gelatinous texture. This quality makes it ideal for thickening and texturizing paté style canned cat foods.
But modern, commercially-produced carrageenan is far removed from its beginnings, when it was used in Irish kitchens to make pudding. Today, carrageenan is extracted using strong alkaline solvents and processed even further.
Food grade (or “undegraded”) carrageenan is on the FDA’s list of items that are “Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS). Carrageenan is incorporated into hundreds of products, from ice cream, jelly, beer, diet soda, and yogurt to toothpaste, shampoo, and gel air fresheners. It's found in many in vegetarian and vegan food products, where it replaces animal-derived gelatin. Carrageenan is even permitted in organic foods.
On the pet food side, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which defines the ingredients that can legally be used in pet food, states that carrageenan is acceptable as an emulsifier, stabilizer, and thickener.
The real issue here is that there's another type of carrageenan, called "degraded" or, alternatively, poligeenan, that has been chemically broken down into very small fragments. In scientific research, it's used to purposely induce inflammation in animal experiments. Poligeenan not only reliably causes an inflammatory reaction, but it is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing agent). Poligeenan is not permitted in human foods.
Carrageenan producers, veterinary nutritionists, and pet food manufacturers, all agree, quite vocally in some cases, that food-grade carrageenan is perfectly safe to use in cat food, so pet guardians shouldn't worry about it.
But the truth is not quite so simple. In fact, food-grade carrageenan is never perfectly pure; it contains “a low percentage” of the smaller, inflammatory, more damaging fragments. This may help to explain why even food-grade carrageenan has been known to cause digestive problems.
Researchers have discovered that carrageenan triggers production of Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNF-a), a molecule that stimulates inflammation. On the plus side, TNF-a also promotes apoptosis (cell death), which is one of the ways the body prevents cancers from forming. These opposing functions help maintain balance in the immune system.
In contrast, TNF-a may be a causal factor in many chronic inflammatory diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), asthma, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.
All types of carrageenan stimulate the production of TNF-a.
Carrageenan has been studied in animals, but results have been mixed. Perhaps it's no surprise that whether the study finds carrageenan to be good or bad depends on who funded the study.
One leading researcher, Dr. Joanne Tobacman, has studied the effects of carrageenan on the lining of the gut for decades; and she is convinced that the inflammatory and carcinogenic effects of carrageenan are caused by both native (food grade) and degraded (poligeenan) forms. Her experiments have shown that carrageenan it inflames the intestinal lining (and also increases inflammation-causing free radicals), and disrupts insulin metabolism. There is also evidence for its role in the development of cancer. Of course, Dr. Tobacman's research has been highly criticized by the carrageenan industry.
Factors such as heat, bacteria, acid, and digestive enzymes can convert high weight carrageenans to dangerous poligeenans in the gut. The feline stomach environment is extremely acidic; could this make carrageenan especially dangerous for cats? Might carrageenan be a previously unsuspected factor in cases of food intolerances and allergies, IBD, feline diabetes, and even cancer?
The FDA appears to have zero interest in any of the newer research that suggests carrageenan is potentially harmful. So carrageenan will remain on the GRAS list for the foreseeable future. And, of course, the pet food industry is determined to maintain that status quo.
It’s up to you to decide, and to vote with your dollars. It’s certainly possible that carrageenan could be a factor in many of the health problems experienced by animals and people. Because it's found in so many products, it would be hard to eliminate completely, but avoiding it in your cat's food is easy (because it must be listed on the label); and it may be well worth the effort.