At its latest meeting in Geneva in June, the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) committee presented the findings of a review of recent studies related to the safety of carrageenan, which is commonly used by food manufacturers as an emulsifier, stabilizer or thickener.
The additive has been the topic of much debate in recent years, with consumption linked to gastrointestinal problems in some studies. On the back of this evidence, JECFA had, since 2007, advised against its use in infant formula.
Despite this, US authorities, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have approved the use of carrageenan in both conventional and organic liquid infant formula.
Taking into account fresh research, including a study of piglets that was representative of human infant consumption of carrageenan in infant formula, JECFA concluded that the seaweed additive is safe for use in infant formula.
“The Committee concluded that the use of carrageenan in infant formula or formula for special medical purposes at concentration up to 1000mg per litre is not of concern,” said the JECFA review summary.
“The Committee recognized that there is variability in medical conditions among infants requiring formulas for special medical purposes that contain the higher levels of carrageenan, and the Committee noted that these infant would normally be under medical supervision.”
Speaking with DairyReporter.com, Bill Matakas, president, Marinalg International, said that products manufatcured by International Formula Council (IFC) members "that include carrageenan are well below the JECFA specification of up to 1000mg per liter."
Despite its approved use in the US, the European Union (EU) prohibits the use of carrageenan in all infant formula.
In its 2003 review, Opinion on the Scientific Committee on Food on Carrageenan, the European Commission (EC) reaffirmed its position on the use of carrageenan in infant formula.
“...it remains inadvisable to use carrageenan in infant formulae that are fed from birth, including those in the category of foods for special medical purposes," said the EC opinion.
On the back of the JECFA review, which Marinalg says are used to guide food additive regulatory approvals worldwide, DairyReporter.com pressed Matakas on whether the WHO and FAO-endorsed conclusion could change EU opinion.
“It is impossible to predict what EU legislators will do with the JECFA findings or the information upon which the findings are based, but JECFA reviews carry a great deal of weight,” said Matakas.
“We are confident that national regulatory bodies will recognize the significant of JECFA’s positive affirmation and body of research demonstrating the safety of carrageenan in infant formula and formula for special medical purposes when developing or reviewing their own regulations,” he said.
Marinalg welcomed JECFA's review, branding it a “reflective of the informed science that has repeatedly affirmed carrageenan’s safety.”
According to Matakas, carrageenan plays a "vital role" in ensuring infants receive the nutrients "they need to grow and develop."
“Carrageenan functions as a stabilizer in infant formula, ensuring that vital nutrients remain mixed in throughout the product and do not settle at the bottom. This is important for mothers of fussy eaters who may not drink a whole bottle in one sitting," he said.