Carrageenan: Facts, Myths, Safety & Toothpaste

Native Carrageenan Is Derived from Red Seaweed

We recently launched our new Honest Toothpaste and Honest Kid’s Toothpaste and we’ve been getting a lot of questions about our decision to use carrageenan, a thickener made from seaweed. Why? Because various sites claim it causes cancer.

But here’s the honest 411…

The source of confusion and misinformation regarding carrageenan stems from people not knowing that there are two different types that result from different ways of processing the polysaccharides that are extracted from seaweed.

  • Carrageenan (aka “native” carrageenan or “food-grade” carrageenan) requires minimal processing of seaweed to release and purify carrageenan. This type of carrageenan has been used since 600 B.C. in China, and you can even make it at home using the same recipe that’s been used for centuries. Essentially, you boil the seaweed, then add cold water, then cool, and strain. After it chills for about a day, you have a natural batch of gelatinous carrageenan. Industrial processing of carrageenan, which requires a few more steps depending on the type of refinement (like purification and concentration for easier shipping), has been around since about the 1930s. Since then, carrageenan has been widely used in foods and cosmetics to improve texture and stability.

  • Poligeenan (aka “degraded” carrageenan) requires an aggressive chemical process using strong acids and high temperatures over an extended period of time. It starts as carrageenan, but the end result is very different, does not have the same thickening properties as carrageenan, and its sole use today is as a component of an X-ray imaging diagnostic product (not food or cosmetics).

Unfortunately, prior to about the 1980s, poligeenan was referred to as “degraded carrageenan” and for a short time the word “carrageenan” was used interchangeably to refer to either substance. This resulted in carrageenan receiving the bad rap of toxic results (including carcinogenicity) found through studies on poligeenan. Due to this confusion, the U.S. Adopted Names Council determined that “poligeenan” was a more accurate name for the chemically degraded form of carrageenan.

But the confusion persists and it’s perpetuated by the media, social media, and some well-intentioned organizations and advocates. We deeply respect and appreciate the efforts of those fighting for safe foods and products — we’re on the same mission! But, as always, we’re here to help clarify some facts for you:

Poligeenan = Possibly carcinogenic according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Not allowed in food or cosmetics.

Carrageenan = Repeatedly tested and reviewed over decades and consistently deemed safe for food and cosmetics by agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the E.U. Scientific Committee on Food, and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization.

And guess what? The carrageenan used in Honest Toothpaste is NOT poligeenan or degraded carrageenan; it is a very high-quality, food-grade (GRAS) native carrageenan. We stand behind its safety in our formula 100%.

By the way, if you want to know more about why carrageenan keeps ending up as a public health target, check out this comprehensive assessment, “Public health and carrageenan regulation : a review and analysis.,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. It cites decades of studies demonstrating carrageenan’s safety and delves into the fascinating world of public discourse and public policy. The author closes with a truly poignant observation: “However, there is also the paradox that the more safety is proven, the more controversial that proof becomes.”

Have any other questions about carrageenan? Let us know in the comments. It’s part of our mission to translate the science, end the confusion, and empower parents to make the best choices for their families!

UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who has expressed concern about our use of carrageenan. We sincerely appreciate hearing from our community — in all instances. Every piece of feedback helps refine our approach, products, and services to help us do better!

In this situation, it appears a lot of comments have been spurred by a report and blog post by The Cornucopia Institute and we’d like to respond to that directly.

First and foremost, we do NOT think our customers are “dim-witted.” Not in the least. We know for a fact that you’re some of the savviest, concerned, and informed consumers out there, and we are so proud of your support as you propel us to achieve the highest standards.

We apologize for oversimplifying the science behind carrageenan. We were only trying to clarify that there are two types of carrageenan (a fact that is indeed confusing and has led to a lot of misinformation for consumers) and our assessment of “native” carrageenan was more so in reference to Honest’s use of it — at very low levels.

We certainly don’t think carrageenan should be consumed to the degree it is in processed FOOD these days, but as a thickener in toothpaste, our formulation team / QA / science advisors didn’t feel the evidence showed a risk for children or adults. Even Cornucopia’s report is aimed at FOOD usage, and the studies are all based on much higher exposure levels. As mentioned in our blog post above, it’s been used safely at low levels in cosmetics and for pharmacological reasons for hundreds of years. It’s only been recently that it’s been added to a stunning array of processed foods and consumed at higher levels never before experienced in history and, we agree, that’s concerning.

Clearly, a lot of you feel that using it in toothpaste is worrisome, as well. And, if you’re concerned, we’re concerned. So, we are reviewing the studies again (and others), and investigating and testing potential alternatives.

We’re a small company, we listen, and we can be nimble with our formulations to quickly respond to customer concerns. Which brings us to a larger issue we’d like to point out: we’re not “big industry” trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes or cut corners and costs at the expense of children’s health (as Cornucopia seems to be implying). We are honestly trying to do better everyday, with every decision.

We see our customers as peers, we see non-profits as peers, anyone working for the health and well-being of children and the planet — we’re on the same side — and we are parents of babies too. Many of those on our staff — even our co-founder — come from working at non-profits advocating for children’s health and the environment. We collaborate with those same non-profits (and many others) on finding solutions because we have the same mission — despite being a “for-profit” entity. Fundamentally, we view all of our customers as collaborators, too because we ALL have the same mission. And only working together can we really do things better, make things better, and create a better world for our children.

That said, we want to hear from you as we explore this issue deeper. What toothpastes do you like? What alternatives for a thickening ingredient do you think we should consider?

(And sorry in advance for those of you asking for clay. Our product team and focus group testing unfortunately found that not many people cared for clay-based toothpaste — taste, texture, and efficacy. The majority of our customers are people transitioning away from the conventional big brands and they simply aren’t ready to make that far of a leap. But we’ll keep looking!)

Let us know what you think. Together, we can make it better!