Carrageenan, one of the country's top dollar-earning marine products might drift against doubts following apparent adverse report of an American scientist. This development overshadows Department of Science and Technology-supported carrageenan research and development projects and threatens culture, production, and marketing aspects of the multimillion-dollar Philippine seaweed industry.
University of Iowa's Dr. Joanne Tobacman in a report disclosed that rats fed with PoIigeenan (an acid, peroxide hydrolyzed carrageenan) developed inflammatory bowel disease (IBO) and eventually neoplasms or tumors. Monkeys given the same food developed liver cancer.
Tobacman's report splashed doubts on the safety of carrageenan in human health. This emerging critical health and safety issue could jeopardize the export-driven industry along with the many coastal communities dependent on seaweed farming if not fully clarified.
Carrageenan is a mixture of highly sulfated polygalactans (substances that comprise gums, agar, and fruit pectins obtained through elimination of water) extracted from seaweeds. An algal polymer, carrageenan offers a wide range of rheological properties characterized by the ability to mix fluids and solids, which makes it ideal material as gelling agents, thickener and stabilizer or emulsifier in both food and non-food products.
Interest in Carrageenan is growing because of its positive interactions with different types of proteins and its thermally reversible gelling characteristics at low concentrations. These unique characteristics make carrageenan the practical choice over other substitutes.
But Dr. Quintin L. Kintanar, a leading toxicoloqist and pharmacologist disagrees with Tobacman's report. "This issue has to be resolved immediately. People should be informed that carrageenan is as safe as the other food additives".
He warned that an inconclusive report might unfavorably affect the livelihood of many people. Kintanar heads the health sciences division of DOST's National Academy of Science and Technology, the country's highest S&T advisory and recognition body.
Kintanar personally visited Tobacman in the US recently and discussed carrageenan health safety issue on its scientific merits. On his return Kintanar presented a paper entitled "Philippine Information Paper on the Safety of Carrageenan".
Kintanar essentially said that the research results of Tobacman's work were inconclusive and had no scientific bases. As such, "her findings would surely be a big drawback to one of the country's biggest dollar-earners and would deprive many Filipino families of their sources of livelihood", he added.
Safe Food and Additive
The country produces seaweed strains such as Kappaphycus alvarezii and Eucheuma denticulatum. The red Eucheuma seaweed species from which Kappaphycus carrageenan is produced and popularly known as guzo in local markets is actually consumed often as salad vegetable.
Kintanar also noted that seaweed is also included in popular recipe books. "Even though no careful epidemiological studies have been performed, there is no evidence of excessive levels of IBD or colon cancer in local populations" known to consume seaweed.
Kintanar's report also said major independent bodies of experts identified carrageenan as a safe food additive. It is now one of the most thoroughly studied food additives.
Stringent regulatory bodies that gave the green light to carrageenan as food additive include the US Food and Drug Administration, European Commission on Scientific Committee for Food, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Health Organization – Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives.
A 1991 WHO guideline said "if the product has been traditionally used without demonstrated harm, no restrictive regulatory action should be undertaken".
DOST's Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development along with University of the Philippines' Marine Science Institute received funding support from the United Nations Development Programme for joint carrageenan projects.
Various researches on carrageenan's applications on health, medicine, food, and industry are also underway through DOST's Philippine Council for Health Research and Development, and Food and Nutrition Research Institute.
Carrageenan production that started in the 1980s now accounts for 26% of global demand for human consumption and 44% for feeds and industrial use. Export revenues now exceed US$100 million annually and grows 9% to 13% each year.
PCAMRD studies showed the Philippines is currently the leading supplier of Eucheuma controlling 80% of world supply. Europe is the largest market for dried seaweed (70%) and Carrageenan (55%). Other major buyers of dried seaweeds are France, Hong Kong, Spain, USA, and Denmark. Total volume of dried seaweed shipped out in 2000 reached 48,400 tons.
Carrageenan is also exported to the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, USA, and The Netherlands, which combined for 7,700 tons.
The seaweed industry is a major source of livelihood to more than 100,000 families in economically disadvantaged islands mainly in the Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces in Southern Philippines. The Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao and Western Mindanao produce about 70% of the national output.
Other coastal provinces with flourishing seaweed farming are Palawan and Mindoro in Southern Tagalog, and Cebu and Bohol in Central Visayas. About 15,000 factory workers are also estimated to be involved in the processing and manufacture of carrageenan.
Carrageenan is an important functional material used for bakery products, processed meats, confectionery, and dairy products as emulsifier or thickener, clarifying and gelling agent, and stabilizer. Some industrial uses include film coating, culture media as agar substitute, water-based paints, personal care and pharmaceutical products, among others.
-S&T Post, Vol. XXI, 1st Quarter 2003
Interviewed by: Aristotle P. Carandang, Media Core, NAST