The Role of Carrageenan and Carboxymethylcellulose in the Development of Intestinal Inflammation

Front Pediatr. 2017 May 1:5:96. doi: 10.3389/fped.2017.00096. eCollection 2017.


Although the exact pathophysiology remains unknown, the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is influenced by the interplay between genetics, the immune system, and environmental factors such as diet. The commonly used food additives, carrageenan and carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), are used to develop intestinal inflammation in animal models. These food additives are excluded from current dietary approaches to induce disease remission in Crohn's disease such as exclusive enteral nutrition (EEN) using a polymeric formula. By reviewing the existing scientific literature, this review aims to discuss the role that carrageenan and CMC may play in the development of IBD. Animal studies consistently report that carrageenan and CMC induce histopathological features that are typical of IBD while altering the microbiome, disrupting the intestinal epithelial barrier, inhibiting proteins that provide protection against microorganisms, and stimulating the elaboration of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Similar trials directly assessing the influence of carrageenan and CMC in humans are of course unethical to conduct, but recent studies of human epithelial cells and the human microbiome support the findings from animal studies. Carrageenan and CMC may trigger or magnify an inflammatory response in the human intestine but are unlikely to be identified as the sole environmental factor involved in the development of IBD or in disease recurrence after treatment. However, the widespread use of carrageenan and CMC in foods consumed by the pediatric population in a "Western" diet is on the rise alongside a corresponding increase in IBD incidence, and questions are being raised about the safety of frequent usage of these food additives. Therefore, further research is warranted to elucidate the role of carrageenan and CMC in intestinal inflammation, which may help identify novel nutritional strategies that hinder the development of the disease or prevent disease relapse post-EEN treatment.

Keywords: Crohn’s disease; carboxymethylcellulose; carrageenan; inflammatory bowel disease; microbiota; ulcerative colitis.

Publication types

  • Review