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.
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.