Carrageenan, a Versatile and Safe Food Ingredient

Let Science and Facts Guide You


Carrageenan has become an essential ingredient in a wide variety of foods we consume every day such as flavored milks, stabilized milk substitutes such as soy, processed deli and fresh meats, and as a vegetable-based gelatin replacer.

Carrageenan has a number of positive attributes in today’s food environment.  Carrageenan can be used in foods labeled Organic and is considered Natural. Ingredients Solutions Inc. has carved out a niche in the US market by being the leading marketer of Natural Grade (Semi-Refined) carrageenan, a minimally-processed type of carrageenan.  Natural Grade carrageenan is lower in cost than the highly refined types but equally effective in the applications noted above.

The fact that carrageenan is a seaweed extract gives it a certain cache among those consumers seeking “green” and “sustainable” products.  Seaweeds grow in seawater without the need for fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.  The predominant seaweed types producing carrageenan (Kappaphycus and Eucheuma spinosum) grow naturally on tropical reefs.  To augment the natural harvest these two seaweeds have been farmed by coastal fisherman predominantly in Philippines and Indonesia for the last forty years.  As fishing in these areas has declined, seaweed farming has become the principal income for this population.  So, there is a social-economic empowerment associated with the carrageenan industry.

Let’s return to carrageenan’s attributes as a food ingredient.  Carrageenan from the two tropical seaweeds noted in the previous paragraph give a wide range of textures or “mouth feel”.  These textures range from rigid to elastic gels and in suitable blends with other gums can have the texture of salves or pastes.  If carrageenan from cold water seaweeds are added to the mix free flowing viscous solutions can be formulated.

Another attribute of carrageenan is its ability to bind water.  Syneresis control is important in processed meats.  Without carrageenan in the mix of gums used in processed meats, controlling package purge would be an even bigger problem than it already is.  Syneresis control also plays a role in fragrance release in air fresher gels an important application for carrageenan.  While not a food application it is worth mentioning.  Carrageenan is also a synergistic gum.  That is, it can be formulated into blends of gums to make stronger gels than with a single gum. Blends can also be formulated with lower syneresis than can be achieved with a single gum.

Probably the most unique property of carrageenan is its ability to interact with proteins, a special type of synergistic behavior.  Milk protein forms a particularly strong bond with carrageenan.  Suspending the cocoa in chocolate milk requires only a few hundred parts per million while also imparting a whole milk-like mouthfeel in a low fat milk.  Protein synergy in meat is less than in milk, but it still plays a role in enhancing the sliceability of deli meats. Carrageenan is also gaining use in fresh meats to improve juiciness and reduce cook loss.

Turning to the safety of carrageenan, there has been an amazing amount of unsubstantiated blogging about carrageenan being unsafe as a food ingredient.  In spite of this misinformation, carrageenan continues as the safe food ingredient it has always been.  If it were not, the principal regulatory agencies of the world (US FDA, FAO/WHO JECFA, EU EFSA, and Japan Ministry of Health) would not continue to approve its use, and all of them give the necessary approvals for use in all the applications noted above.  The only application restricted as a precautionary measure is stabilizing liquid infant formula.  Definitive toxicology is about to be published that is expected to remove this restriction.  One fact very much in carrageenan’s favor on the safety front stems from very low use levels. Furthermore, being a relatively expensive ingredient it is only used in applications where its unique functionalities justify its use.

Why all the concern about the safety of using carrageenan in foods?   Starting in the 1960s there have been research studies showing that if excessive doses of carrageenan are consumed in animal trials inflammation can be induced in the small intestine.  Likewise, inappropriate methods of introducing the carrageenan into the animals can create a similar inflammatory response, i.e. feeding carrageenan to the animals in their only source of drinking water.  However, there has never been a validated inflammatory response in humans over the seventy plus years carrageenan has been used in foods.  The anecdotal “upset tummies” reported in blogs as coming from consuming a food containing carrageenan are hardly reliable sources of toxicological information on the safety of carrageenan.

Inflammatory responses in animals only occur when carrageenan can cross the blood membrane barrier of the small intestine. This only occurs when the extreme feeding conditions mentioned above are employed.  Normal feeding regimes induce no such response.

Over the last decade a group of molecular biologists at the University of Illinois at Chicago lead by Dr Joanne Tobacman have explored the in vitro interaction of carrageenan with various genes involved in inflammatory diseases. They concluded that carrageenan can cause inflammation in the gut via a binding mechanism involving TLR-4 receptors.  This group also concluded that carrageenan degrades in the gut and the degraded carrageenan can permeate the membrane barrier.  Recent studies sponsored by the carrageenan industry (in press) provide scientific evidence refuting both of these claims.  The industry-sponsored studies also raise the caution that in vitro studies may not be a good model for in vivo events in the GI tract after a carrageenan-containing food has been consumed.

There is no scientific evidence known to Ingredients Solutions Inc. that would require your company to abandon using carrageenan in your product because of safety concerns.  Likewise, there is no reason for you or your company to stop developing new products with carrageenan as an ingredient based on safety issues.  Of course consumer concerns, no matter how ill-founded, must be considered, and the carrageenan industry is trying to get ahead of the bloggers with a positive PR program.