What is it?
Carrageenan is a soluble fiber derived from red seaweed and has been used for centuries to thicken and stabilize food. It’s found in a wide range of food products including frozen yogurt and reduced-fat ice cream.
Chondrus crispus, commonly known as Irish moss, was first described as a seaweed extract in Ireland as early as 1810, where it was recommended as a cure for respiratory ailments. Meanwhile, seaweed farming was starting in Japan in response to increased demand for the red seaweed. More than 100 years later, a small New England seaweed processing industry expanded enormously during World War II, mainly to replace agar, which had been supplied from Japan but was cut off by the war. Carrageenan got its start in commercial foods around this time when a Chicago dairy company called Krim-Ko began using it to keep the chocolate from settling in its bottled chocolate milk.
What does it do?
Carrageenan is an abundant, natural material which is very useful in thickening our toothpaste.
Carrageenan is also widely used as a food additive where it has been used to thicken, stabilize and modify the texture of a wide array of food products including – jams and jellies, dairy products like milks, cottage cheese, puddings, and ice cream, and even meat products like hot dogs and lunch meats.
How is it made?
The raw seaweed is cooked, rinsed, soaked and filtered. Then isopropyl alcohol is added and cooked with it, like a soup, the carrageenan separates out and can be dried to remove the alcohol then it is chopped and milled. 99.8% of the isopropyl alcohol is baked away in the drying process and the remaining isopropyl alcohol continues to evaporate after processing, leaving virtually none in the final product.
What are the alternatives?
Carrageenan often replaces synthetic thickeners, like Carbomer, and animal-based thickeners, like gelatin. There are other natural thickening ingredients as well, like acacia gum and xanthan gum, that might be used based on specific product attributes, but carrageenan represents a Stewardship friendly choice because it is a naturally and sustainably sourced material with little taste or odor and has a long history of safe use in food products.
Is this the right option for me?
There is some confusion about carrageenan which has cast an unfortunate bad light on the ingredient. The Joint Expert Committee of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization on Food Additives (JECFA) and the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) and has been concluded that the use of Carrageenan as a food additive was of no safety concern. More recently, JECFA released a technical report on the use of carrageenan in infant formula and found that the additive was ‘not of concern’ in infant formula as food for special medical purposes at concentrations up to 1000 milligrams per liter.1 Additionally, The US Food and Drug Administration has listed Carrageenan as a Food Additive Permitted for Direct Addition to Food for Human Consumption2.
There is some confusion about the difference between poligeenan and carrageenan. Poligeenan is a chemically degraded derivative of carrageenan which is used for industrial (non-food) purposes. Although poligeenan does not possess the thickening or stabilizing properties of carrageenan, it was improperly named "degraded carrageenan" and for a short time the word "carrageenan" was used ambiguously and might refer to either food-grade or degraded carrageenan. Due to this confusion, the US Adopted Names Council determined that "poligeenan" was a more accurate and descriptive name for the chemically degraded form of carrageenan. While poligeenan has shown unfavorable health effects in studies, food-grade carrageenan has no known toxicity or carcinogenicity and is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the US Food & Drug Administration3. Unfortunately, because the two ingredients were referred to by one common name for a short time, many people have been left with the mistaken impression that the negative health effects shown for poligeenan are true of food-grade carrageenan.
Carrageenan can not be degraded into poligeenan during digestion. Food-grade carrageenan is an entirely safe and appropriate ingredient for toothpaste.
Tom’s of Maine recognizes that no two people are alike, and even with naturally derived ingredients, some individuals may develop an allergic reaction that is unique to them. As with any product, be sure to discontinue use if you experience discomfort or other indications that the product may not be appropriate for your individual body chemistry.
1 "Safety Evaluation of Certain Food Additives, 3" (PDF). Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, WHO Food Additive Series: 70. 2015.
2 21CFR 172.620
3 21 CFR 172.620