A critical review of the toxicological effects of carrageenan and processed eucheuma seaweed on the gastrointestinal tract

Crit Rev Toxicol. 2002 Sep;32(5):413-44. doi: 10.1080/20024091064282.


Carrageenan is a high-molecular-weight, strongly anionic polymer derived from several species of red seaweed that is used for the textural stabilization of foods. Processed Eucheuma Seaweed (PES) is a form of carrageenan with a higher cellulose content. Food-grade carrageenan has a weight average molecular weight greater than 100,000 Da, with a low percentage of smaller fragments. Carrageenan is not degraded to any extent in the gastrointestinal tract and is not absorbed from it in species examined, such as rodents, dogs, and non-human primates. Systemically administered carrageenan has been reported to have a variety of effects, particularly on the immune system, but these are not pertinent to orally administered carrageenan. The substance poligeenan (formerly referred to as degraded carrageenan) is not a food additive. It exhibits toxicological properties at high doses that do not occur with the food additive carrageenan. In-long term bioassays, carrageenan has not been found to be carcinogenic, and there is no credible evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect or a tumor-promoting effect on the colon in rodents. Also, like many dietary fibers, there is significant cecal enlargement in rodents when it is administered at high doses, but this does not appear to be associated with any toxicological consequences to the rodent. Many toxicological studies on carrageenan have involved administration at doses in excess of today's standards for dietary feeding levels in bioassays, and they are orders of magnitude in excess of those to which humans are exposed. Previous reviews of carrageenan and PES by the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) have recommended a group allowable daily intake (ADI) of "not specified". The lack of carcinogenic, genotoxic, or tumor-promoting activity with carrageenan strongly supports continuing such an ADI, and JECFA, during its most recent review in 2001, continued this recommendation. The various toxicological studies related to orally administered food-grade carrageenan are summarized along with a brief discussion of critical factors in intestinal carcinogenesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Oral
  • Animals
  • Carrageenan / administration & dosage
  • Carrageenan / pharmacokinetics
  • Carrageenan / toxicity*
  • Cecum / drug effects
  • Cecum / pathology
  • Digestive System / drug effects*
  • Digestive System / microbiology
  • Digestive System / pathology
  • Dogs
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Food Additives / toxicity
  • Mice
  • Polysaccharides / toxicity
  • Rats
  • Seaweed*
  • Toxicity Tests


  • Food Additives
  • Polysaccharides
  • poligeenan
  • Carrageenan