Although you may not have heard of carrageenan—a soluble fiber that comes from red seaweed—this environmentally friendly product has been around for ages. In fact, Irish use of carrageenan has been documented in the early 1800s, when it was recommended as a cure for respiratory ailments. It has been used by the food industry as an additive for decades. And carrageenan benefits more than our food, providing both sustainability and positive environmental impacts to our coastlines.
Today, carrageenan is commonly used in vegetarian, vegan or organic foods as a natural food stabilizer. Part of its appeal is carrageenan’s simple extraction process. Unlike synthetic additives made in a lab with potentially harmful chemicals, carrageenan can be extracted from seaweed right in your kitchen. This process involves cooking the seaweed with salt, adding alcohol, and then mixing it in a blender to allow the release of carrageenan.
This process contrasts greatly with the production of man-made food additives, such as gellan gum, which is a suggested alternative to carrageenan. However, when carrageenan is replaced by another stabilizer, more additives are required, adding to the length and complexity of your food labels. These additives also alter taste, color and texture in existing formulas. In addition, gellan gum uses corn syrup during processing, which is typically derived from GMO corn farmed in less-than-environmentally friendly conditions.
Unlike synthetic additives made in a lab, carrageenan comes from the ocean, thanks to the small family farms that harvest carrageenan off the coast of countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Tanzania. In these countries, seaweed farming has grown exponentially, offering an alternative to the dying fishing industry. And according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2013 this industry directly contributed to the livelihoods of 20,000 smallholder farms in Indonesia alone, and since then, that number has increased. So by using carrageenan, we are supporting these family businesses.
And the beneficial environmental impacts that seaweed has on the coasts where it is farmed make carrageenan even more appealing. Considered to be one of the world’s most sustainable and nutritious crops, it doesn’t even leave a carbon footprint because it actually absorbs nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon dioxide in the ocean. And when planted in a barren area, this seaweed can become an attractive habitat and food source for new life—like fish and invertebrates—thereby enhancing and restoring the coastal ecosystem.
Whether you realize it or not, you have most likely consumed carrageenan within the past 24 hours. But unlike other man-made chemicals, you don’t have to feel guilty about eating this product. In fact, you can feel good knowing that the seaweed that made your carrageenan helps to support family farms and our bountiful oceans.