Carrageenan: What is it?
Carrageenan is an ingredient in many of the foods we eat every day, from cheese to almond milk to jam to salad dressing. Among other uses, it makes ice cream and yogurt creamy and serves as a vegan alternative to gelatin. It also prevents food waste by stabilizing foods — which means they stay delicious longer without spoiling.
While the word carrageenan may be unfamiliar, this food ingredient is harvested from a natural source we’ve all heard of, seaweed, which is often praised for its many health and wellness benefits. Carrageenan is extracted from a type of red seaweed by boiling the seaweed in a gentle, non-acidic broth, filtering it, and then milling it 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 across the globe have been harvesting seaweed and making their own carrageenan for centuries. The name carrageenan is believed to be derived from the Irish word carraigín, which means little rock; the earliest records of carrageenan use in Ireland dating back to the fifteenth century. Early Irish chefs would extract the carrageenan from the naturally growing algae, and use it to thicken puddings and broths.
Social and environmental benefits of carrageenan
In addition to being an important food ingredient, carrageenan improves economic stability in places like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Tanzania, which are some of the largest producers of the red seaweed that carrageenan is derived from. Seaweed farmers around the world harvest an estimated 210,000 metric tons of red seaweed a year, totalling over $250 million in value. According to a 2013 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Many of these communities lived at or below the poverty level prior to engaging in seaweed farming.
“With the income earned from the sale of seaweeds, many farmers have experienced substantial improvements in their standards of living as they have been able to send their children to school, introduce improvements to their dwellings, enhance their diets, increase their purchasing power of material goods, etc. In particular, seaweed farming has had a remarkably positive effect on the socio-economic status of female farmers as it allows them to engage in an income-earning activity that can be undertaken without neglecting traditional household chores.”
This sustainable aquaculture helps support over 30,000 family farms on five different continents.
Carrageenan production also benefits the environment. Growing red seaweed requires no fresh water, no pesticides, and no fertilizers to grow, and it does not use farmland. Seaweed also absorbs and neutralizes greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. Additionally, seaweed farming provides workers in developing countries with a more sustainable alternative to fishing. Given that 31.4% of fish stocks are classified as being overfished, and that Indonesia alone has seen a 75% decline in fish populations since 2002, seaweed farming may help struggling marine life regain footholds in coastal areas.
What foods contain carrageenan?
- Ice cream
- Lunch meats
- Baby formula
- Almond milk
- Whipped cream
- Candy bars
- Chocolate milk
- Coffee beverages (e.g., iced coffee and soy-based coffee drinks)
- Coffee creamer and half and half
- Ricotta cheese
- Cottage cheese
- Sour cream
Why do foods contain carrageenan?
Carrageenan is a unique and versatile ingredient. Some of the reasons foods include carrageenan are listed below:
- Carrageenan is used to make foods healthier, replacing additives that may be high in fat or sugar without compromising taste.
- Carrageenan reduces waste by extending the shelf life of foods without any loss of quality. This also increases the availability of food, making it easier to feed people across the world.
- Many foods, such as mayonnaise and salad dressing, would separate without the help of a stabilizer to keep them mixed; carrageenan does just that.
- Carrageenan, much like flour and cornstarch, is used to thicken certain foods.
- Carrageenan is inexpensive to produce, reducing the cost of foods.
- Carrageenan is halal, kosher, and suitable for vegetarian and vegan diets.
- Carrageenan in food allows manufacturers to include vegetable and animal protein in products without compromising taste.
Is it safe?
So, is carrageenan bad for you? No. On the contrary, there is overwhelming evidence from numerous dietary studies over the past four decades demonstrating that carrageenan is an entirely safe food ingredient.
Carrageenan is sometimes called a food additive because it is something that is added to food — just like salt and pepper are additives. The word “additive” is no reason to worry about eating it.
You may have heard some rumors of health concerns surrounding carrageenan safety. Perhaps you’ve been reading a popular health-food website, or maybe you have encountered a research study that seems to suggest carrageenan-related health concerns. It’s important to note that these sources are not all reliable. There is a lot of misinformation and misguided science out there, and it can be difficult to know what is true and what is not.
Regulatory authorities across the world, including in the United States, Europe, China, Japan, and Brazil, have all approved carrageenan as safe for food. Additionally, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) ran an in-depth review of the science and found carrageenan to be safe for use in infant formula, including formula for special medical purposes. Infant formula ingredients are strictly regulated. By declaring carrageenan safe for use by infants, the FAO and WHO — two highly respected international regulation organizations — are demonstrating just how benign an ingredient carrageenan is.
Carrageenan is not poligeenan
But despite wide approval from food regulatory groups around the world, carrageenan still carries the undeserved stigma of “unsafe food additive.” Why is this?
Well, much of the confusion stems from the fact that a substance called poligeenan, which is used in medical imaging, was once referred to as “degraded carrageenan.” And although poligeenan is also derived from seaweed, that’s where the similarities end.
To create poligeenan, seaweed extract is exposed to an extremely harsh process — heated to extreme temperatures and bathed in acid. This results in a substance (poligeenan) with completely different properties from carrageenan. The molecular weight of poligeenan is 20 to 80 times less than that of carrageenan. This low molecular weight allows poligeenan to potentially penetrate the body’s intestinal walls, something that carrageenan simply cannot do.
The term “degraded carrageenan” is no longer in use among the scientific community, but because many people still refer to poligeenan as “degraded carrageenan,” there are those who mistakenly assume that the two substances are one and the same. Regardless, the truth is that carrageenan is not poligeenan, and poligeenan is not used in foods.
Could carrageenan produce poligeenan?
No, it could not. Carrageenan foods do not contain poligeenan. The process used to create poligeenan requires washing seaweed at 194 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 6 hours in an acidic bath with a pH of 1 — similar to battery acid. This process requires a very different facility than what is used to make carrageenan, and carrageenan does not undergo any aspect of this process.
There have been claims in the past that the acidic conditions inside the body could turn carrageenan into poligeenan, but this is completely false. The temperature inside the stomach during digestion is only 99 degrees Fahrenheit. This is far lower than the temperature needed to make poligeenan.
Furthermore, this tiny ingredient would not be able to remain in the stomach for a full 6 hours — it would pass through. And the average acidity of stomach acid is nowhere near harsh enough to turn carrageenan into poligeenan. It’s 2.5, in comparison with the pH 1 acid used in the production of poligeenan.
All facts considered, you can be confident that the carrageenan you eat does not contain any poligeenan, and there is no way for it to become poligeenan during digestion.
So it’s safe?
Yes, carrageenan is perfectly safe. You can enjoy your favorite foods that contain carrageenan without worrying. By valuing and trusting sound science over internet rumors, you can make educated choices about your nutrition and lifestyle