What is carrageenan and why is it used in food?
Carrageenan (“care-ah-gee-nun”) is a naturally-occurring food ingredient extracted from red seaweed. It is a starch-like product that has been used in food for hundreds of years for its ability to form gels, thicken solutions, and stabilize products. These functions help to provide better-tasting, more palatable food choices.
There are three types of carrageenan, distinguished by their chemical structures and properties:
1. Iota carrageenan forms an elastic-type gel that is stable during freezing and thawing.
2. Kappa carrageenan forms a solid gel that may become brittle in texture.
3. Lambda carrageenan does not form a gel, but adds texture to solutions.
Which foods contain carrageenan?
Some food products that contain carrageenan are chocolate milk (keeps cocoa powder suspended and evenly distributed in milk), ice cream and other dairy products (prevents whey separation), salad dressings (improves texture), soy milk (acts as a thickening agent), and some meat products (acts as a binding ingredient).
How is carrageenan produced?
While carrageenan is naturally sourced, it must undergo some simple processing steps to make it ready to add to foods. There are two methods commonly used to produce carrageenan:
1) In the filtration method, carrageenan is extracted from the seaweed into a liquid solution, filtered out, and dried.
2) In the alkali method, the seaweed is treated with an alkaline solution, leaving behind carrageenan and cellulose. The product is then dried and sold as semi-refined carrageenan (SRC).
Is carrageenan safe to consume?
Yes. Several studies conducted with laboratory animals and humans looking at effects of carrageenan on a variety of health conditions, including cancer, digestive health, reproductive health, etc., have demonstrated the safety of carrageenan for use in foods and beverages. A few studies of laboratory animals indicated inflammation in the digestive tract. However, they used excessively high doses and used forms of carrageenan that are not used in food. Therefore, these studies are not relevant to human food and beverage consumption by humans.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has reviewed the research on carrageenan and concluded that there is no current evidence to suggest carrageenan is unsafe for public consumption. In addition, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has found carrageenan to be safe for use in food, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has concluded that carrageenan is not cancer-causing.
How is carrageenan use in food regulated?
The FDA regulates the use of carrageenan in foods and beverages. Carrageenan is an approved food additive permitted for human consumption in foods and beverages. FDA reviewed the scientific research on carrageenan’s safety prior to permitting it for use in foods and beverages. In addition, the US Department of Agriculture accepts it as an ingredient in meat products.
If added to foods, carrageenan must be included on the food label, in the ingredients list on food packaging.
For more information about carrageenan, view these resources:
European Commission, Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Food on Carrageenan. March 2003.
CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, Volume 3 – Food Additives Permitted for Direct Addition to Food for Human Consumption, Subpart G – Gums, Chewing Gum bases and Related Substances, Sec. 172.620 Carrageenan. U.S. FDA. Revised April 1, 2013.
NOP Sunset Review (2013) renewed listing of carrageenan in USDA’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
IFIC Foundation Resources:
Food Ingredients & Colors brochure