Food additive carrageenan: Part I: A critical review of carrageenan in vitro studies, potential pitfalls, and implications for human health and safety

Crit Rev Toxicol. 2014 Mar;44(3):211-43. doi: 10.3109/10408444.2013.861797. Epub 2014 Jan 24.


Carrageenan (CGN) has been used as a safe food additive for several decades. Confusion over nomenclature, basic CGN chemistry, type of CGN tested, interspecies biology, and misinterpretation of both in vivo and in vitro data has resulted in the dissemination of incorrect information regarding the human safety of CGN. The issue is exacerbated when mechanistic data obtained from in vitro experiments are directly translated to human hazard and used for risk assessment. This can lead to information that is taken out of experimental context and reported as a definitive effect in humans. In recent years, the use of cell-based models has increased and their ability to provide key information regarding chemical or drug safety is well established. In many instances, these new alternative approaches have started to replace the need to use animals altogether. In vitro systems can be extremely useful for understanding subcellular targets and mechanisms of adverse effects. However, care must be exercised when extrapolating the in vitro findings to in vivo effects. Often, issues such as chemical identity and purity, relevant dose, pharmacokinetic properties, solubility, protein binding, adsorption to plastics, and the use of cell models that are biologically and mechanistically relevant are overlooked or ignored. When this occurs, in vitro findings can provide misleading information that is not causally linked to in vivo events in animals or in humans. To date, there has not been a comprehensive review of the CGN in vitro literature, which has reported a wide range of biochemical effects related to this compound. An extensive effort has been made to evaluate as much of this literature as possible. This review focuses on the in vitro observation, the unique chemistry of CGN, and potential pitfalls of in vitro models used for hazard identification. The discussion of the in vitro studies discussed this review are supported by numerous in vivo studies. This provides a unique opportunity to have both the in vitro and in vivo studies reviewed together.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carrageenan / adverse effects*
  • Carrageenan / chemistry
  • Carrageenan / metabolism
  • Cell Line
  • Evidence-Based Practice*
  • Food Additives / adverse effects*
  • Food Additives / chemistry
  • Food Additives / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Risk Assessment / methods
  • Toxicity Tests


  • Food Additives
  • Carrageenan