CategoryFood Safety

Carrageenan – What is this secret ingredient?

As with any food ingredients with a long and unfamiliar name, carrageenan is often met with scepticism by consumers who worry that it might be bad for them. Although some food additives, for example high fructose corn syrup, should be avoided whenever possible, many are completely safe. Carrageenan falls into this category – it is a thoroughly tested ingredient that is approved by US and world food authorities.

However, it is always important to know exactly what you’re eating, and many people don’t actually know what carrageenan is. Perhaps surprisingly, the ingredient actually comes from a kind of seaweed called Irish moss, rather than a bunch of chemicals and acids in a big laboratory somewhere. In fact, there is very little about carrageenan that is similar to other food additives – the only real similarity being that it is added to foods, hence the term.

The process of creating carrageenan is so simple that you could potentially even do it at home – all you’d need is seaweed, water, a coffee filter and a tiny amount of alcohol. The Irish moss is boiled in the water, which is made slightly alkaline by adding the alcohol. Once it has stewed, the seaweed is then removed from the water and filtered, before being dried and then ground into a powder.

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It is then shipped and sold as a powder, predominantly from The Philippines, the country that exports 80% of the world’s carrageenan.

The main reason that the ingredient is so widely used is that it is extremely versatile. It has a number of desirable properties that can be used to improve foods. For example, it acts as a thickener to enhance the texture of low fat dairy products, an emulsifier to prevent your mayonnaise separating, and a preservative to keep your cold cuts moist for longer.

Previously, there have been reports from certain media outlets that the ingredient isn’t safe to eat, however these criticisms have since been disproved – they had confused carrageenan with poligeenan, also made from seaweed, but treated with acid and never used in food. Carrageenan on the other hand is perfectly safe, and some even believe that it can have beneficial effects on the skin.

Of course, it is correct to always question what is in the food we eat – it would be foolish to blindly consume foods without considering the effects they could have on our health. However, carrageenan is an additive that you can trust, and without it your favorite foods wouldn’t be the same.

Can Carrageenan Cause Cancer?

It’s an argument that has gone on for years now – is carrageenan truly safe, or does it cause cancer?

If you take a keen interest in food science and nutrition, it is quite likely that you have heard about carrageenan and the controversy that surrounds it. If not, where have you been?

Firstly, it is important to understand what carrageenan actually is. A certain type of red seaweed is boiled, filtered, dehydrated and then finely chopped into a powder, which is then packaged and sold. It is used for a whole range of purposes, from thickening low fat foods to making them last longer or stopping ingredients separating. More can be found out here.

However, some believe that it can cause cancer, which has led to panic and confusion over whether or not it is okay for you and I to eat.

Much of this is fuelled by the findings of Dr Joanne Tobacman, a scientist who has researched the subject of carrageenan safety for many years. She claims that carrageenan can cause cancer when consumed by humans, however, the FDA body doesn’t certify her findings.

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Immediately this statement breeds thoughts of a corrupt food governing body, which is ignoring sound science and serving the giants of the industry over the general public. Rest assured that this is not the case.

The FDA may not be perfect, however in this case, they are right to dismiss Dr Tobacman’s findings for a number of reasons.

Firstly, many of her studies actually are conducted using the wrong carrageenan. Poligeenan is a similar product made with harsh acid, which used to be known as “degraded carrageenan” hence the confusion. Many of Tobacman’s earlier studies used poligeenan rather than carrageenan. Poligeenan is never used in the food industry because the way it is processed renders it unsafe. Carrageenan however is not treated with acid and therefore the research is inapplicable.

Furthermore, the way she administered carrageenan to the animals tested upon did not accurately simulate the way it is digested in humans. In some cases she used large amounts of the stuff, sometimes it would be suspended in water rather than attached to the proteins in food, and it was even injected into animals’ bloodstreams on occasion.

Carrageenan is used in small quantities and attaches itself to proteins in food, not in abundance with water. Also, carrageenan has no dangers as it never enters the bloodstream; it passes through the digestive system with no impact. None of these emulate its use in food, and therefore parallels cannot be drawn.

It is fairly clear that Dr Tobacman’s studies are not a fair reflection of carrageenan’s safety. Next time you hear a rumor about food safety, be sure to look up the science behind it, as there is a lot of misinformation out there.

Organic food companies are keen to spread fear of food additives to make more money out of their products, and so-called “nutrition experts” with popular blogs often have hidden agendas too. Make your own mind up using the actual science behind the rumor rather than believing everything you see or hear online.

Why are additives used in everyday foods?

Food additives are used for a variety of reasons, from maintaining your foods nutritional value, to improving the taste, texture, appearance and safety of your food. That’s right, despite all the hype around food additives they are actually often used to improve the safety of what we eat.

So what is a food additive anyway?

In simple terms a food additive is a substance that is added to food that changes its characteristics somehow. Food additives have to classifications – direct and indirect. Direct additives are added to food for a specific purpose – examples are sugar or salt. Indirect additives on the other hand are those that get included in the food in minor amounts as a result of handling or storage.

 Great, but how are they used?

Often additives are used to improve the nutritional value of food. Vitamins and minerals are added to help improve people diets and enhance the nutritional value of what we eat.

They are also used to improve the safety and freshness of the food that we eat. Preservatives are essential to slow food spoilage caused by bacteria, air and mold. They also help control contamination and life threatening botulism.

In addition to helping with safety and nutritional value, additives improve texture, taste and appearance. Natural flavors, spices and sweeteners are added to enhance the taste of food. Stabilizers, thickeners and emulsifiers such as carrageenan are used to give food products the consistent texture and consistency that you expect. Find out more here..

Some common food additives: 

Carrageenan is a common natural food additive that is essentially a form of seaweed. It is used as a stabilizer and thickener and is responsible for making your favorites foods have an appealing texture. Carrageenan is completely safe and has been approved by recognized health organizations for human consumption.

Artificial food colors are dyes used to enhance the color of food and drinks. The FDA considers food colors safe to use when used properly.

To summarize everything

Food additives and ingredients have been used for many many years to flavor, preserve, color and thicken food. They help ensure that the foods we know and love are readily available, full of flavor, safe and nutritious. All food additives are strictly monitored and regulated by the FDA. Regulations dictate that all substances have to be proven safe for human consumption before being added to food.

So there we have it – food additives are used to help deliver you the safe, tasty and nutritious food that we eat.