It is not without reason that a dog is called ‘man’s best friend’ while cats are the most popular pets worldwide. These animals provide us unrivalled love and companionship, while only asking for a little food and attention in return. Some individuals shower their pets with so much affection that there are even pet hotels, salons, and spas now catering to every desire the pooch or feline might have! This care naturally extends to food as every pet owner would like to provide their animal companion food that will keep them active, healthy and happy. However – pet owners would be well advised to exercise caution with a particular ingredient that is widely used as a food additive – Carrageenan.
Carrageenan is a seaweed-derived food additive used in a number of products such as dairy products, meat products, salads, confectionaries, toothpaste and animal food. Seaweed typically has a lot of trace minerals that are highly nutritious. When carrageenan is cooked, it takes on a gelatinous texture that can thicken and provide a smooth texture to various kinds of canned pet foods. However, the synthetically produced industrial carrageenan is far removed from its natural roots. Now, it is a highly processed food additive that is extracted with the help of strong alkaline solvents. Food grade carrageenan is on the FDA ‘GRAS’ list (generally recognised as safe). In the case of pet food, the Association of American Feed Control Officials considers it to be an acceptable thickener, stabiliser and emulsifier.
There is another variety of Carrageenan known as poligeenan that has been divided into smaller fragments. It is useful in deliberately inducing inflammations in animal experiments but is not permitted in food, as it can cause cancer. Carrageenan producers, elementary nutritionists, and pet food companies strongly claim that food grade carrageenan is safe for animals to consume. The truth is not that simple, though. Food grade carrageenan is not entirely pure and contains a minute percentage of the inflammatory, smaller, but damaging fragments. This could be a logical explanation of why even food grade carrageenan has caused health problems from time to time.
Researchers have found carrageenan to produce a cytokine called Tumour Necrosis Factor-alpha in the body. This molecule causes inflammation and also promotes cell death (apoptosis). Tumour Necrosis Factor alpha is supposed to be a factor in several chronic inflammatory diseases such as asthma, autoimmune disease, inflammatory bowel disease and cancer. Every type of carrageenan is known to stimulate Tumour Necrosis Factor alpha production. A lot of research has been done on carrageenan fed to animals, but the results are still quite mixed. The conclusions largely depended on who provided funding for the study.
Dr Joanne Tobacman has studied the intestinal epithelium carrageenan effects for more than two decades. Unsurprisingly, her research has been heavily criticised by the carrageenan industry. Dr Tobacman is convinced that carcinogenic and inflammatory effects are caused not only by food grade, but also poligeenan forms of carrageenan. Dr Tobacman has shown carrageenan to directly cause inflammation of the intestines, increase free radicals, and disturb insulin metabolism (possibly leading to diabetes). She is also of the opinion that there is evidence of its carcinogenic properties. Heat, acid, bacteria and digestive enzymes can potentially convert high weight carrageenan into life-threatening poligeenan in the human (and animal) gut. The feline stomach, in particular, is highly acidic, making carrageenan possibly much more dangerous for cats. There is a chance that carrageenan could be partially responsible for rising cases of diabetes and cancer observed in cats.
Other experts have pointed out that carrageenan could be contaminated by radioactivity spewed from nuclear sites like the Fukushima reactor. Most carrageenan is obtained from South American countries such as Chile, Argentina and Peru today. These countries are largely shielded from radioactive plumes circulating in the northern hemisphere’s ocean currents. However, any seaweed obtained from the northern seas is quite likely to be contaminated now and into the future.
It seems that the FDA is uninterested in new research that shows carrageenan to be quite problematic. And companies in the pet food industry will only be too happy to maintain the current status quo. To be fair, the USDA has removed carrageenan from the allowed items list in organic foods, largely due to consumer pressure and safety concerns. The decision made in November 2016 should be finalised next year unless companies lobby heavily to the USDA to reverse their decision (currently in full swing). The onus is entirely on consumers and pet owners to take a call and show their decision with their dollars. While the blame for all these health problems cannot be conclusively laid entirely on carrageenan, it could certainly play a partial role. While it is impossible to entirely eliminate it from a diet, a pet owner can certainly try to limit their beloved companion’s carrageenan intake as much as is possible.