You may be surprised to learn that some foods you eat and products you use contain an ingredient derived from red seaweed. It's true, and the ingredient name is "carrageenan." But what is its purpose? What is carrageenan used for, exactly, and why is it in your personal care products? Read on to get answers to these questions and find out why you can feel good about this ingredient.
What Is Carrageenan Used For and Where Does It Come From?
You may see the word "carrageenan" on food and personal care product labels, such as frozen yogurt and natural toothpaste. The name may not ring any familiar bells, but this soluble fiber is naturally derived from red seaweed.
Carrageenan is an abundant, naturally derived material commonly obtained from an edible species of red seaweed called Chondrus crispus, also known as Irish Moss. The first known use of the extract was in Ireland as early as 1810 to address symptoms of respiratory ailments.
Increased demand for carrageenan prompted more farming of the ingredient, with Japan being a top grower. Then, over 100 years later during World War II, a small seaweed processing operation out of New England began to take off. This led to carrageenan making its first appearance in commercial food products, when Chicago-based dairy company Krim-Ko added it to its bottled chocolate milk to keep the product from separating. Since then, carrageenan has been widely used to thicken, stabilize, and improve texture in a wide selection of foods, such as dairy products and lunch meats.
How Is Carrageenan Sourced and Processed?
To make food-grade carrageenan, the raw red seaweed is first cooked and rinsed, then it is soaked and filtered. Afterward, processors add isopropyl alcohol and the mixture is cooked again to separate the carrageenan. The next step is to let the carrageenan dry, after which it is chopped and milled. The final product contains practically no trace of alcohol as 99.8% of the alcohol dissipates during the drying process and the remaining amount continues to evaporate.
It's important to note the distinction between carrageenan and poligeenan, also known as degraded carrageenan. Carrageenan is approved for use in food products and poligeenan is not. Confusion over the labeling of the two different types of the ingredient led the US Adopted Names Council to designate "poligeenan" as the name of the chemically degraded form of carrageenan. Poligeenan is a chemically degraded form of carrageenan used for industrial purposes, and it is not safe for use in food products.
Research reported in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition summarizes the association between poligeenan and inflammatory response in the gastrointestinal tract. This has led to claims that carrageenan is linked to certain health issues, such as digestive upset. But rest assured that food-grade or undegraded carrageenan has no known carcinogenicity or toxicity and is deemed Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the US Food and Drug Administration.
Carrageenan in Personal Care Products
So, what is carrageenan used for? Aside from use in food products, carrageenan is often found in personal care products. The naturally derived ingredient works as a thickening agent in many types of products. Carrageenan in toothpaste serves as a naturally derived binding ingredient—including in toothpastes made for children. There are many other products that may include carrageenan, too, such as hand soaps and body wash.
Knowing the facts about ingredients like carrageenan helps to dispel myths about natural products and takes the guesswork out of purchasing personal care items that align with your values.
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Why It's Good
Understanding where the ingredients in your products come from can help you feel more confident in your purchases. Naturally derived carrageenan is recognized as safe for use in toothpastes and other personal care products.