Today, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is meeting in Saint Louis. As I write this, carrageenan is still an acceptable ingredient in organic foods. But by the time you read this, that may have changed. There’s a good chance that by the time NOSB has wrapped up their business, they will have removed carrageenan from the National List of synthetic ingredients permitted to be used in food marketed as organic. There’s nothing wrong with that: Part of the board’s mandate is to gradually remove from the list ingredients that aren’t essential to food production. There are replacements available for most uses of carrageenan, which is used as a thickener and stabilizer, and manufacturers who truly can’t do without the stuff are permitted to petition for an exception. Everything by the book.
I’m not happy.
Here’s the problem. The legal authority to delist carrageenan will come from the fact that alternatives are available. That’s fine. But the rather large public debate that’s led up to the decision has been couched almost entirely in terms of food safety. And the NOSB shouldn’t be ruling on food safety. Certainly it is supposed to react when it knows an ingredient is unsafe, but it’s hard to see what qualifies this collection of producers, processors, and consumer advocates to make an independent decision on whether an ingredient is safe or not. It’s like letting Congress decide whether global climate change is real or permitting the Texas School Board declare that evolution is an open question. (I know, we’ve done both of those things, but do we like the results they lead to?)
The problem here was bigger. The team doing the replication study got basically none of the result the original team got. Their cells wouldn’t absorb or interact with the carrageenan at all. They generated none of the inflammation products the original studies did.
Does this disprove the original studies? Nope. But if we trust that the methods and results of the second study were honestly reported, it makes us ask why the results were different. And it should make us recognize that we won’t entirely understand the original studies until we answer that question.
The study, by the way, was funded in part by FMC Corporation, which manufactures carrageenan, and by the International Food Additives Council (IFAC), which will cause many people to dismiss it out of hand. This kind of reaction is reasonable, but it makes me feel like many people have no idea how deep conflict of interest goes. Sure, the researchers who cashed FMC’s check may have felt some pressure to deliver acceptable results. But if you’ve ever lived in an academic setting, you know that the lead author of the original studies, Joanne Tobacman of the University of Illinois at Chicago, having built some solid research turf around carrageenan and inflammation, had more to gain from confirming her early work than from proving that she’d been wrong. And the folks at Cornucopia Institute, which has campaigned aggressively against carrageenan, and whose work I admire, have an interest in being seen as lonely crusaders fighting against entrenched corporate interests. And I have an interest in coming up with off-center interpretations of events and enticing you to read. All of us have reasons to say things that aren’t quite so. All of us, if we’re being even reasonably professional, fight the impulse, with greater or lesser success. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s what we’ve got.
Again, it may sound like I’m overthinking it. Maybe so. But as I said, the last few weeks have me thinking. I’ve witnessed the spectacle of an enormous number of my fellow citizens apparently deciding that facts are infinitely malleable. I’ve watched authority rejected and authoritarianism embraced. I’m feeling a deep hunger for reality. I know it’s not simple, and that we approach it only by building and sustaining institutions that we trust.
Here’s a little thought experiment: Let’s say that a few years hence, FDA reviews all the evidence on carrageenan (or the ingredient of your choice). After long and transparent proceedings, the agency comes up with a conclusion about its safety exactly the opposite of what you’ve always believed. Do you accept the decision, confident that if it is wrong, it will ultimately get corrected? Do you accept a duly constituted authority? (This doesn’t mean that you agree, just that you accept.) If not, what do you do? Can we in fact continue to protect each other from the world’s dangers if we can’t have a mechanism for making decisions?
That’s not actually meant as a rhetorical question. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Send them to [email protected]