The WhiteWave Foods Company, a Denver-based food and beverage conglomerate, will remove a controversial emulsifier from Horizon and Silk milks, according to the Associated Press (AP).
The company will phase out the use of carrageenan, a thickening agent made from parts of various red algae or seaweeds. For the past few years, The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group, and consumer advocates like Vani Hari, known in the world of online activism as “The Food Babe,” have publicly criticized the ingredient.
In March 2013, The Cornucopia Institute published a report titled Carrageenan, How a “Natural” Food Additive is Making Us Sick. The report notes that degraded carrageenan is a potent inflammatory regularly used by scientists to induce inflammation and other diseases in laboratory animals to test anti-inflammatory drugs and other pharmaceuticals. While degraded carrageenan is forbidden in food products, scientists have long raised concerns over food-grade carrageenan, the report says. The Cornucopia Institute urges anyone suffering from gastrointestinal symptoms to consider eliminating the consumption of products with carrageenan, which has also been linked to intestinal cancer.
The AP article notes that WhiteWave believes carrageenan is safe, but decided to remove the ingredient because of strong customer feedback.
“When you get to a certain point of how vocal and strongly a consumer feels about it, we felt it was time to make a change,” WhiteWave spokeswoman Sara Loveday told the AP.
The article also notes that carrageenan will be removed from Horizon flavored milk in the first quarter of 2015 and will be removed from all other Horizon items, including egg nog, low-fat cottage cheese and heavy whipping cream by the second quarter of 2015. Carrageenan will be removed from WhiteWave’s top five Silk soy and coconut drinks by the second quarter of 2015 and all other Silk products in 2016, according to the AP.
WhiteWave’s decision marks the next move in a spate of consumer-influenced initiatives regarding controversial beverage ingredients. In December 2012, a Mississippi teenager named Sarah Kavanagh launched a petition that called for PepsiCo to stop formulating Gatorade with brominated vegetable oil (BVO), citing the ingredient’s link to flame retardant chemicals. The company later removed BVO from Gatorade, but denied the petition’s influence. In May, another Kavanagh-led petition seemingly influenced The Coca-Cola Co. to remove BVO from its Powerade sports drinks.
Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, said that WhiteWave is appropriately and astutely responding to the concerns of consumers. And while this recent decision won’t eliminate the use of carrageenan from all WhiteWave products, he said that it’s a positive step nonetheless.
“This is kind of a tactical decision on their part to put out the fire,” Kastel said.
He added that a stark divide exists between publicly-funded research and industry-funded research, the latter of which helps preserve the belief that carrageenan is safe. The Cornucopia Institute found that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cited a number of outdated corporate-funded studies claiming the ingredient’s safety. When The Chicago Tribune asked the FDA to present a single pro-carrageenan study that hasn’t been funded by the industry, the FDA told the paper that it agreed to look, yet provided no examples after three weeks.
“You can buy science,” he said, “and obviously this industry and many others have.”
Stonyfield Organic, which markets yogurt, milk and smoothies, among other products, wrote to consumers in February 2013 that it is committed to developing new recipes without carrageenan because of consumer preference. In July 2013, Organic Valley wrote on its Facebook page that it is actively seeking new recipes without carrageenan and has already released a carrageenan-free pasteurized cream.
Even with the progress, Kastel knows that his work isn’t through. Yet either way, WhiteWave’s decision could be counted as a minor victory for the voice of consumers.
“Forget about the FDA, forget about the scientific journals, forget about research organizations, forget about all these players,” Kastel said. “The ultimate arbiter in these matters is the consumer. They hold the purse strings.”