Sources of Food Ingredients: Carrageenan

Carrageenan is a commonly used food ingredient that is derived from red seaweed. It occurs naturally in ocean plants that are grown and harvested by an estimated 100,000 family farms on five continents. It helps to thicken and stabilize ingredients or nutrients in foods and drinks.

See below for commonly asked questions about carrageenan’s use in foods!
  1. What is carrageenan?

    A: Carrageenan is a natural, plant-based ingredient found in many foods. It is made from red seaweed that is sustainably grown and harvested by family farmers from oceans around the world. One of nature’s perfect stabilizers and thickeners, carrageenan is used to improve the texture, taste, and appearance of many foods. There are three types of carrageenan that are most widely used: Kappa, iota, and lambda carrageenan.

  2. What foods and beverages contain carrageenan?

    A: Carrageenan is an essential ingredient in many of the foods and beverages consumed every day, including nut and soy milks, deli meats, protein shakes and powders, chocolate milk, yogurt, popsicles, prepared meals such as frozen burritos and pizza, ice cream, and infant formula.

  3. How long has carrageenan been used in foods?

    A: Carrageenan has been used for hundreds of years in cooking all over the world, especially in Ireland, where this food ingredient was first discovered.

  4. How is carrageenan made?

    A: You can make carrageenan in your own kitchen, as the Irish did hundreds of years ago, by simply boiling seaweed with a little salt, adding a bit of alcohol, and then mixing it in a blender to release the natural carrageenan. Today, carrageenan is manufactured with minimal processing. First, the seaweed is boiled in water that is slightly alkaline (“alkaline” just means something is higher on the pH scale; for example, watermelon is alkaline and has a high pH, while vinegar is acidic and has a low pH). Finally, the seaweed is dried, chopped, and ground into a fine carrageenan powder.

  5. Why is carrageenan in my food?

    A: Carrageenan is added to foods for different reasons. It is used in ice cream to give it the smooth, creamy texture consumers know and love. In chocolate milk and almond milk, carrageenan is used as a stabilizer to keep the chocolate from separating or the ground nuts from settling to the bottom of the carton. It is also used to stabilize and suspend nutrients in liquid infant formula to make sure babies get the nutrition they need. Carrageenan can also be used to reduce the sugar content in jams and jellies, reduce sodium in lunch meats while keeping them moist and fresh, and improve and protect the overall nutritional value in a number of foods without sacrificing taste.

  6. Is carrageenan permitted for use in the U.S. and in other countries?

    A: Carrageenan is recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as permitted for use in food for human consumption under 21 CFR 172.620 and has been proven safe and effective for use in foods by decades of rigorous scientific study and human consumption. Regulatory authorities in every region of the world, including the United States, Europe, China, Japan and Brazil, have found carrageenan safe for use in food. Carrageenan has been confirmed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the FDA.

  7. Can carrageenan be used in foods marketed as organic, vegetarian, halal or kosher?

    A: Carrageenan is a vegan, plant-based ingredient that is essential to many vegetarian, vegan, halal, kosher, and organic food options. It is used in some products to replace animal fats; in others, it’s used in place of gelatin, which is made from animal collagen. Without carrageenan, some products would not meet organic standards or vegetarian, halal, or kosher diets.

  8. Is carrageenan the same as poligeenan?

    A: No, carrageenan is not the same thing as poligeenan. Carrageenan is a natural seaweed extract that is easily harvested by boiling and blending red seaweed. Poligeenan is made synthetically by subjecting seaweed to intense temperatures and boiling it in acid. The resultant substance is not approved as a food additive, and has no usable function in food. Although poligeenan was once known as “degraded carrageenan,” it is a completely separate substance from carrageenan.   

  9. How does carrageenan benefit my health?

    A: Carrageenan as a food ingredient can be used to replace the sodium in lunch meat and can take the place of fats, oils and sugar in some of our favorite sweet treats. New studies are also showing that carrageenan may be able to improve gut healthprotect the intestinal liningtreat cardiovascular disease, and help fight the common cold.  

  10. What other benefits does carrageenan provide?

    A: Carrageenan is made from seaweed harvested by family farmers in coastal communities around the world. More than 100,000 family farmers rely on seaweed farming to support their families, improve their homes, and provide better lives for their children. According to a 2013 United Nations report, “the socio-economic impacts of carrageenan seaweed farming… [are] overwhelmingly positive,” particularly for women. In some countries, seaweed harvesting provides a way out of poverty for women who may not have access to other job opportunities.

  11. Why is carrageenan necessary in foods and beverages?

    A: When it comes to many of the food and beverage products enjoyed by consumers (think ice cream and chocolate milk), manufacturers find carrageenan to be an essential ingredient that works better than any other available substitute. Food companies are reluctant to change up their recipes because alternative ingredients may change the color, texture and taste of foods. Carrageenan is also clean-label friendly. Food manufacturers would have to use multiple or higher levels of other additives to replace it, some of which are not clean-label ingredients.

  12. How does the production and use of carrageenan impact the environment?

    A: Seaweed is one of the most sustainable crops on the planet. Growing and harvesting the seaweed used to make carrageenan requires none of the fertilizers, pesticides or other chemicals that are often used in land-based farming. Seaweed sequesters carbon and cleans ocean water of phosphorus and nitrogen.

  13. Does carrageenan make food more affordable?

    A: Carrageenan can’t be substituted with just one other ingredient. If manufacturers move away from carrageenan, multiple or higher levels of other food additives will need to be used to replace it, meaning more expensive food products. Carrageenan also extends the shelf life of foods while protecting their nutritional value and ensuring flavorful, safe, convenient and affordable foods year-round.

  14. Does carrageenan contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

    A: Carrageenan is GMO-free and made from sustainably harvested seaweed that is grown in the ocean.

  15. Is carrageenan harmful?

    A: Extensive research has been unable to reliably connect carrageenan to any of the “carrageenan dangers” suggested by Tobacman or Cornucopia. Instead, reliable science continues to demonstrate that ingested carrageenan poses no threat whatsoever.

  16. Why do certain groups want to remove carrageenan from approved-ingredients lists?

    A: Carrageenan is a safe, natural ingredient that fills several important roles in food. Despite this, some groups are under the mistaken impression that carrageenan is harmful. This misconception can be traced back to 1997, when a researcher named Joanne Tobacman began publishing lab results that seemed to indicate inflammatory properties in carrageenan, possibly leading to a number of digestive and colonic health problems, including ulcerative colitis and even cancer. However, her results could not be replicated by the scientific community, and there is evidence that she used poligeenan (a non food-additive formerly known as “degraded carrageenan”) in place of standard, undegraded carrageenan. Despite these issues, her work was picked up by the special-interest group Cornucopia Institute, which then used its resources to promote an anti-carrageenan agenda across the internet. Despite continued support for carrageenan from the FDA and other food regulatory agencies, citizen petitions to remove carrageenan from approved-ingredient lists have begun to sway certain food companies and other organizations, including the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB).

  17. Is carrageenan safe for children?

    A: Carrageenan is safe and approved for use in foods by regulatory bodies around the world, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization. In fact, there are decades of scientific research that prove carrageenan’s safety in food. There are no dangers to using carrageenan. It is permitted in infant formula and is the only stabilizing ingredient used in liquid organic infant formula.

Making Food Better Every Day

Carrageenan is one of many food ingredients that make the foods consumers enjoy every day better, remain fresher longer and have that familiar appeal that we have come to know and expect.  Carrageenan helps reduce fat and salt content in deli meats and hot dogs while ensuring the expected texture out of these lunch favorites.  Food producers can also employ carrageenan to stabilize foods at room temperature, reducing food waste as well as transportation and storage costs, savings which can result in lower food prices.