Ingredients in the Spotlight: Carrageenan

Ingredients in the Spotlight: Carrageenan

If you want to be able to make informed, fact-based decisions about the foods you purchase and eat, there is one particular category of ingredients you need to get to know: additives. Broadly described as natural and artificial substances that are added to foods to improve and preserve qualities like flavor and appearance, additives have become a somewhat controversial subject in recent years, with many different entities—from food industry players, to nutrition advocates, to individual consumers—debating their effect on our health.

Today, the ingredient in the spotlight is carrageenan: a commonly used ingredient that is added to a very wide range of food products. Read on to learn more.

What is carrageenan?

Carrageenan is a naturally occurring ingredient that is extracted from Irish moss, an edible red seaweed native to the British Isles. A starch-like product, carrageenan has the ability to form gels and thicken and stabilize solutions and other products.

Carrageenan comes in three different types, each with distinctive chemical structures and properties:

Iota carrageenan—This type of carrageenan forms an elastic-like gel that remains stable during freezing and thawing.

Kappa carrageenan—This type of carrageenan forms a more solid gel that often develops a brittle texture.

Lambda carrageenan—Unlike the other two types, lambda carrageenan does not form a gel. Instead, it adds a thicker, more stable texture to solutions.

How is carrageenan made?

Naturally sourced, carrageenan needs only minimal processing before it can be added to foods. The two most commonly used production methods are the alkali method, in which the seaweed is first treated with an alkaline (or non-acidic) solution to extract the carrageenan, and then dried and powdered; and the filtration method, in which carrageenan is separated from the seaweed into a liquid solution, which is then filtered and dried.

Image by Michael Foley | Flickr

How long has carrageenan been used as an additive?

Unlike many other additives found in today’s food products, carrageenan has been used in traditional cooking for hundreds of years. For example, in Ireland, which is where carrageenan was first discovered, people would make carrageenan in their own kitchens by simply boiling seaweed with salt and adding a little alcohol. The resulting substance was then used to thicken foods like puddings and broths. The earliest records of the production and use of carrageenan in Ireland date back as far as the 15th century.

Why is carrageenan used in foods?

There are many different reasons why carrageenan is added to foods. Because of its starch-like properties, it is often used as a thickener for foods like soups, sauces, and puddings, and to add a smooth and creamy texture to ice cream and yogurt.

Carrageenan is also an effective stabilizer, which means that it can prevent foods and beverages from separating. For example, when carrageenan is added to a product like chocolate milk, it keeps the cocoa suspended evenly throughout the beverage and prevents it from settling into a layer at the bottom. Similarly, carrageenan is often used in baby formula to keep the nutrients suspended throughout and ensure that babies are getting much-needed nutrition in each spoonful. Finally, carrageenan can be used to reduce both the sodium content in processed meats and the sugar content in jams and jellies (by creating the texture most associated with added salt and sugar).

Is carrageenan safe?

Carrageenan has been in the news a great deal in recent years due to claims that the ingredient has a negative impact on human health. The controversy centers around the work of researcher Dr. Joanne Tobacman, who began studying the effects of carrageenan on the human body in the late 1990s. She published a series of lab results that seemed to connect carrageenan with a number of digestive and colonic health problems (apparently triggered by carrageenan’s purported inflammatory qualities).

Since that time, however, some uncertainty has emerged around this work. Other studies have been unable to replicate Dr. Tobacman’s results under controlled conditions, and many other researchers believe that the methods she used were questionable. For example, there is a reasonable possibility that poligeenan, a completely different substance, was tested instead of food-grade carrageenan, and that consequently the results were incorrectly attributed.

Contemporary consumers should be aware that carrageenan is considered safe for use by a variety of worldwide food regulatory agencies, including the US Food and Drug Administration, the European Commission, and the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives.

Does the use of carrageenan offer any benefits?

In addition to improving the texture, stability, and flavor of many foods, as described above, carrageenan offers a number of further benefits. For example, because it is completely plant-based, it is safe for consumption by vegetarians and vegans (as opposed to gelatin, which is often used in similar applications but is derived from animal products). It can also help to make foods healthier as it often can replace extra sodium and sugar. Finally, carrageenan production is sustainable and environmentally friendly, as growing the seaweed does not require any farmland, fresh water, pesticides, or fertilizers.

Mark CrumpackerMark Crumpacker is the CMO and President of Zume Culinary at Zume Inc.,  the Silicon Valley company that has revolutionized the pizza delivery business through its fleet of mobile kitchens outfitted with smart ovens. Mark has more than two decades of experience in the realm of consumer behavior and its effect on brands’ marketing strategies. Mark studied economics at the University of Colorado and earned a bachelor of fine arts in advertising and graphic design from the ArtCenter College of Design. You can follow Mark on Twitter at @markcrumpacker and read his full bio here