The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has allowed the use of carrageenan in organic products, contrary to a recommendation from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to ban the use of the food additive.

Carrageenan is a subgroup of linear sulphated polysaccharides extracted from red edible seaweeds and is added to meat and dairy products, as well as organic items such as almond and coconut milk.  It can be used as a thickener and an emulsifier.

The USDA declared that carrageenan will remain on the National List of non-organic ingredients that are allowed in the processing of organic products.

In a notice to the Federal Register, USDA said: “Carrageenan continues to be necessary for handling agricultural products because of the unavailability of wholly natural substitutes. Carrageenan has specific uses in an array of agricultural products, and public comments reported that potential substitutes do not adequately replicate the functions of carrageenan across the broad scope of use.”

The NOSB recommended the removal of carrageenan from the National List after identifying gellan gum, guar gum and xanthan gum as sufficient substitutes. The NOSB conducted an investigative review into 17 non-organic substances that had provisional permission to be added to organic products in 2018. Of these additives, only carrageenan was rejected by the board. The decision was not due to the safety of the ingredient but because the board could identify adequate organic alternatives.

In defence of carrageenan, Natural Products Association (NPA) chief executive Dr Daniel Fabricant said in a news release:  “Carrageenan continues to be a vital, naturally-sourced food additive in organic foods and infant formula. Carrageenan is commonly used in dairy products to gel, thicken, suspend or emulsify to enable stabilisation, binding and dispersion.”

UnitedFood4Science (UF4S), a collective of scientists, nutritionists and organic company stakeholders, has agreed with the NPA that the decision undermines organic manufacturers.

UF4S commented on its website: “The board’s recommendation would make it difficult for organic food products to compete with non-organic products on sensory attributes such as taste and texture. We will focus on convincing the US Department of Agriculture to reverse this decision and ensure scientific rigour remain in the regulatory review and decision-making process in Washington, DC.”

Other organisations responded in favour of the NOSB’s decision, suggesting that if the USDA is allowed to ignore the board’s recommendations, it could set a dangerous precedent that erodes the authority of the organic seal.

“Current law requires the USDA to base the National List of allowable ingredients for organic food on the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board, which are developed after extensive public engagement and stakeholder input,” said Consumers Union senior policy analyst Charlotte Vallaeys in a statement.