Carrageenan is a thickening, gelling, stabilizing, binding and emulsifying agent that is harvested from red seaweed and algae. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Large amounts of carrageenan have harmed test animals’ colons; the small amounts in food are safe.” While it has been used as a food additive for hundreds of years, analysis of its safety as an additive continues.
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Uses in Food
Desserts, ice cream, milk shakes, sweetened condensed milks, cottage cheese, chocolate milk, whipped cream, jellies, puddings, soups and sauces contain carrageenan to increase viscosity. In beer, it is a clarifier that removes haze-causing proteins, and in processed meats, it increases water retention and volume. Carrageenan thickens some brands of soy milk and is found in diet soda. Infant formulas contain carrageenan as a thickener, emulsifier and stabilizer, and according to a study in the Nov. 1, 1993, edition “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,” it has been found to be safe and not immunosuppressive or associated with increased upper respiratory infections.
Carrageenan also has functions and uses that are not related to human food. It is used to thicken and emulsify pet food. In toothpaste, carrageenan is used as a stabilizer to prevent ingredients from separating. Shampoos and cosmetic creams contain carrageenan as a thickening agent. It increases viscosity in shoe polish and is also found in air freshener gels. In biotechnology, carrageenan gel immobilizes cells and enzymes, and in pharmaceuticals, its powder is used as an inactive, inert substance in pills and tablets.
According to "Environmental Health Perspectives," a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the safety of carrageenan for use in foods was confirmed at the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives in Rome in June 2001. This recommendation was made after a review of all toxicology and carcinogenicity studies on carrageenan by two experts, S. Cohen, University of Nebraska Medical Center and N. Ito, Nagoya City University Medical School.
Depending on the location and type of seaweed used, the manufacturing process will vary to produce the highest quality. Basically though, after harvest, the seaweed is dried, baled and sent to the manufacturer. The seaweed is then ground, sifted to remove impurities, washed thoroughly, treated with a hot alkali solution to remove the cellulose, filtered, dried, concentrated and ground to specification.