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Ensure, Abbot Labs and The Carrageenan Conspiracy


A recent report, issued by the Cornucopia Institute clearly illustrates the marry-go-round of staff and how so many questionable processed food ingredients have been deemed okay in foods labelled "organic". They're calling it the Organic Watergate and at the centre of it is one of my most despised additives: carrageenan.

Degraded carrageenan can be found in all kinds of "organic" foods (like almond milk to your soy yogurt to your dairy free ice cream) along with medical meal replacements like Ensure.  I have long argued in favour of the benefit of Irish Moss- the whole and health promoting food- of which carrageenan is thought to be derived. I would argue, however, that the thickening agent that is carrageenan and found in our thickened liquids is far from natural. Irish Moss and carrageenan are not the same thing. A bit like comparing raw sheep milk cheese with cheese whiz, or strawberries with strawberry Jell-O.

The politics around carrageenan begin on page 11 of this document, but I will summarize right here for you:

  • Carrageenan is derived from red seaweed.
  • Carrageenan can be classified as low molecular weight, “degraded” carrageenan, or high molecular weight, or “undegraded” carrageenan.
  • Degraded carrageenan is recognized as a carcinogen in lab animals, and is therefore classified as a “possible human carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
  • Degraded carrageenan also causes inflammation in the colon in rodents, which resembles ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease.
  • This inflammatory property of degraded carrageenan is not in dispute, especially since the medical research community has used degraded carrageenan for decades to induce acute inflammation in experimental trials conducted with lab animals, to test anti- inflammation drugs.
  • Carrageenan processors claim that food-grade carrageenan sold to food processors falls entirely in the undegraded category. However, studies (including industry-funded studies) show that food-grade carrageenan is also linked to colon inflammation and colon cancer in animals.

You read that correctly. Whether degraded or non-degraded, "food-grade" processed carrageenan sold to food processors has been a known human carcinogen and proven to induce intestinal inflammation.

(Getting worked up? Share this story!)

What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with every doctor and dietician's favourite dietary replacement beverage Ensure? Or why Abbot actually  promotes Ensure as an aid for digestive tract health. Both good questions.

As I mentioned, Ensure along with many doctor recommended meal replacements, contains carrageenan. And who is told to take this? Yes- people suffering from conditions of wasting- including patients post chemo/radiation and people recovering from intestinal surgeries due to inflammatory bowel disease. The reality is that they are recommending a food that contains an additive that is directly linked to the very diseases for which they are suffering.

Consider this: Ensure, containing pro-intestinal-inflammatory carrageenan, an ingredient proven to aggravate Crohn's and Colitis, is made by Abbot Laboratories. Abbot Laboratories is also the maker of Humira, a popular treatment for Crohn's and Colitis. Here's the kicker though- Abbot Lab's Ensure is also the bronze level sponsor of the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of Canada (CCFC).

Isn't that a perfect mix? Some might see this relationship as contradictory as having a cigarette company sponsor the search to cure lung cancer.

I have been attempting to schedule an interview with the CCFC regarding whether they believe there is a conflict of interest having major sponsors whose products could aggravate the conditions for which they are funding cures for, but so far, they have yet to be available.

We might also begin to ask why the Dieticians of Canada are recommending Ensure as a milk alternative for those who are lactose intolerant. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that along with Coca-Cola, PespsiCo, and Unilever, Abbot, makers of Ensure,  is also a an "Academy Partner" of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

It's not at all difficult to find this information and make these connections and they are certainly not limited to Ensure and Carageenan.

All any of has to do is start with the question and the connections become very clear very quickly. I hope that by next week I will have been able to get my interview with the CCFC to gain a better understanding of their relationship to this product. I don't know about you but I would love to see organizations, doctors and dieticians make recommendations based on facts and knowledge rather than sponsorship funds! (Share today's tweetable if you agree!)

Clear out the carageenan. The best thickener is fresh Irish moss anyway and this stuff actually heals. Too bad there's no way for pharma to patent it- otherwise the whole food that heals could actually be promoted to the sufferers of disease rather than alchemic potions that only make people worse.

For a more in depth look at the rest of the Ensure ingredients, check out our Superhero Josh Gitalis' post about it here.

30 Responses to “Ensure, Abbot Labs and The Carrageenan Conspiracy”

  1. JENNIFER said…
    thank you so much for this post. Our almond milk contained carrageenan, I was so shocked. Needless to say I'm so done with products that claim to be good for you...must read the label!!
  2. Beth said…
    Also it is in PediasureEN...enteral nutrition for kids who have CROHN'S DISEASE (inflammatory bowel disease) already! My son was using this product for nightly tube feedings for 3 years! He was in a pretty good remission from Crohn's, but suddenly got sick and needed a 2 feet long bowel resection!! Now I have discovered this very nasty Abbot Labs secret about their formulas for folks who already have GI issues. I am talking to their quality department who had no idea about carrageenan in their products! HA
    • Beth said…
      Oh yeah, and he is on Humira now :( I think you are onto something big here, and I have wondered about this for years. A little nervous about being a whistle blower though :)
  3. Melanie said…
    I can see not drinking this stuff long term, but there are some illnesses or medications that make it impossible to eat, especially if they're serious enough that you are being hospitalized. I've been through this before, where I literally could not stomach food because of a serious infection and really strong antibiotics. Ensure probably kept me alive. I'm sure chemo patients go through similar experiences because I've heard it's very difficult to eat while going through chemotherapy. I agree it's not the best option, and I don't agree with pushing it when it's not necessary, but you have to consider that sometimes it's being given to people who are really really sick and don't necessarily have the luxury of freshly made coconut and fruit smoothies. In these cases it's probably not a good idea to say it's better to drink nothing at all than drink these.
    • Meghan Telpner said…
      If you can stomach Ensure, there are for sure other options.
  4. Jeff said…
    I'm not sure anyone is still paying attention to this thread, I have stumbled upon it late it seems. However, for those of you still on the hunt, apparently Boost Fruit juice boxes have comparable nutrition values without the need for carageenan. I can't speak for the rest of the ingredients, but this may be a suitable alternative for those who use Ensure or traditional Boost beverages. Strangely enough, the hospital i work at stocks Boost Fruit and Ensure Plus, but only offer the fruit if specifically asked for it.
  5. I couldn't find any reference to Ensure as an alternative to milk in the Dietitians of Canada article you linked to. I would also like to point our that Dietitians of Canada is a different organization than the American Academy of Nutition and Deititians. So comparing one organizations sponsors to the actions of the other doesn't make sense. Hospitals don't stock a lot of the alternatives you are referring to and come with a cost that a lot of families and patients aren't able to accommodate. I agree nutritional supplements are not the only option but alternatives need to be available and affordable.
    • Meghan Telpner said…
      Tiffany, it is not okay to be giving patients foods that have ingredients that have been directly linked to the worsening of their conditions. There is no excuse for this. Inhibiting the healing process with chemical-laden food is one example of how money is being drained from the system- with failure to notice how healing time could be accelerated with effective real nutrition.
  6. Olivia Anderson said…
    I love the passion in the article and in the subsequent conversation...unless people care, nothing happens. That's why I'm commenting here. Because I care. And the way carrageenan has been portrayed by Cornucopia (and in this article) makes me sad - it is not at all a health risk. Portraying it as so deflects focus away from the real causes of cancer and colitis. Cornucopia is a TRADE ORGANIZATION that supports local organic farming. I suspect that they don't like carrageenan because it's not made or sold by the local farmer. I personally know some of the researchers who did the studies that Cornucopia cites as evidence that carrageenan is bad, and they say carrageenan is completely safe. The animal studies involving carrageenan and cancer - these studies start the cancer by exposing the animals to a potent carcinogen, axoxymethane, then they give carrageenan. Many things will "promote" cancer under these circumstances, including the essential amino acid, methionine. Every human consumes methionine. And regarding the animal studies involving carrageenan and colitis - first of all, this has only been shown in guinea pigs, and second, it only happens in guinea pigs that have a specific strain of bacteria in their guts. That's right, give other animals carrageenan or guinea pigs without the specific strain of bacteraa, and bingo, no colitis. Don't take my word for it. Read the actual studies. The World Health Organization this month reaffirmed the safety of carrageenan in infant formula - the reason why is because it's safe!
  7. Great article about a billion dollar company and their poor quality products and so called 'health' and 'meal replacement' drinks. As an avid health writer and researcher I am always on the lookout for the truth regarding our important health issues. "Ensure: Dubious Claims in a Can", was one of the first health articles I wrote about on my blog way back in 2009. Here is the link for your readers.
  8. nella brown said…
    After hip-replacement surgery & great weight loss, the hospital nutitionist put me on 2 cans a day of ensure. When I was discharged I was given samples & coupons to buy ensure. Shortly after two weeks I got a severe case of irritable bowl I was put on anti-biotics. It didn't help. I had worse symptoms. I went off the ensure thinking the sugar was giving me yeast over-growth. I started feeling better almost immediately & fully recovered within 2 weeks. I never knew about Ensure but now I do & will stay away from it. Thank u........
  9. James said…
    "as contradictory as having a cigarette company sponsor the search to cure lung cancer". Cigarette companies sponsoring lung cancer research is not contradictory. It's a good idea.
    • Meghan Telpner said…
      A matter of opinion, I suppose. Do you think they would be inclined to find results that favour the consumer's wellbeing, or their sales?

Before you post your comment, please note that I am unable to offer nutritional advice or recommendations via my blog.

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