What is it?
Carrageenan is a food ingredient that has a whole host of uses; it can be used as a vegan alternative to gelatin in setting desserts, it retains moisture in various kinds of cooked meats, and it suspends the chocolate in chocolate milk preventing it from separating. It even helps foods stay delicious and desirable for longer, reducing food wastage. Most likely, you are eating it on a fairly regular basis.
Despite an unfamiliar name, carrageenan is actually harvested from a natural source. Seaweed is often praised for its many health and wellness benefits, and it is also where the super-useful ingredient carrageenan is found. It is extracted from a certain type of red seaweed by boiling it in a gentle, non-acidic broth, filtering and then milling into a fine powder that can then be used in food.
The process is so simple that you could actually do it in your own kitchen. In fact, families in Ireland used to do so hundreds of years ago so they could incorporate the ingredient into their dishes.
It is a food additive, because it is something that is added to food — so are things like salt and pepper. Just because it is an additive, does not mean you should be concerned about eating it.
Is it safe?
You may have heard of health concerns surrounding carrageenan. Perhaps you’ve been reading a popular health food website, or maybe you have encountered a research study suggesting it is not safe.
However, you should know that these sources are not all reliable. There is an abundance of misinformation and misguided science out there, and it can be difficult to know what is true and what is not.
Food grade carrageenan has never been found to be harmful. It is a perfectly safe ingredient that has a major role to play in the food industry, and the foods you love wouldn’t be the same without it.
The confusion stems from the fact that poligeenan, a foreign substance used in medical imaging, was once referred to as carrageenan. The type found in food is undegraded carrageenan, which is not put through any harsh processing before it is added to our food; it is simply extracted from the seaweed in the gentlest way possible.
Degraded carrageenan, which is now called poligeenan, is not safe to eat. Poligeenan is actually put through a bath of harsh acid. Since many people still refer to it as “degraded carrageenan”, it gives the food-safe variety a bad name and causes unnecessary confusion; that’s why the term poligeenan is now used.
Could poligeenan get mixed in with carrageenan?
No, it could not. The process used to create poligeenan requires it being washed at 194 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 6 hours, in an acidic bath with a pH of 1 – similar to battery acid. This requires a very different facility than food-grade carrageenan, which does not undergo any aspect of this process.
Some have claimed that the acidic conditions inside the body could turn carrageenan into poligeenan, however this suggestion is completely untrue. The temperature inside the stomach during digestion is 99 degrees Fahrenheit, far lower than is required to make poligeenan.
Plus, this tiny ingredient would not remain in the stomach for 6 hours—it passes through and the average acidity of stomach acid is 2.5 on the pH scale (the lower the number, the more acidic), meaning it is not harsh enough to turn carrageenan bad in comparison with the pH 1 acid used in production of poligeenan.
All facts considered, you can be confident that the carrageenan you eat does not contain any poligeenan, nor could it possibly become poligeenan during digestion.
So it’s safe?
Yes, it is perfectly safe. You can enjoy your favourite foods that contain carrageenan without worrying. By valuing and trusting sound science over conjecture and rumor, you can make educated choices about your nutrition and lifestyle.