When it comes to organic food, some additives are unavoidable. For most savvy consumers, reading the label is a necessary step in deciding which of the seemingly wholesome products on the shelves truly earn their spot at the family table. In a sea of unfamiliar nomenclature and popular science, how is the average shopper to know which ingredients are not only fine, but actually good?
Carrageenan, which comes from a seaweed known as Irish moss, has gotten a bad rap in the public sphere over the past several years. But does this humble 600-year-old seaweed deserve its larger-than-life, dubious reputation? Studies say: nope.
So, what is carrageenan anyway?
Carrageenan is a natural thickening agent often found in dairy products, as well as shelf-stable treats like puddings and jellies. In most cases, it’s the stabilizer that keeps the cocoa powder in your chocolate milk from sinking to the bottom. It was first found in nature in Ireland, where it was used as a part of a cure for a variety of ailments. Today, it is still cultivated on small family farms.
Carrageenan can be found all over the organic aisle, replacing many synthetic or animal-based gumming agents that can act the same way but require the use of multiple chemicals to do so. This keeps food labels shorter, more straightforward and easier to read.
For food producers concerned with ethics and sustainability, carrageenan is one of the only plant-based thickening agents that come from a proven supply chain with well-established quality controls. This means that by using it above chemical replacements, your favorite brands are not only ensuring that your food staples stay kosher, halal and vegan, but are also fostering sustainable aquaculture worldwide and staying true to their organic certification.
Despite some vocal critics’ interpretation of older, unfounded data, modern studies have proven time and time again that carrageenan has no negative health effects as currently used commercially. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and World Health Organization agree. In fact, it’s actually the only stabilizer currently approved for use in organic infant formula in the U.S.
Health-conscious foodies can rest easy knowing that their organic products are already fortified with stability, texture and nutrients from age-old, eco-friendly carrageenan.
Or can they? Simply knowing this option is out there does not necessarily mean every product on the shelf has made the ethical switch.
Beware the alternatives that could be lurking in your otherwise healthy foods
Despite their best efforts to avoid the effects of more obvious impurities, consumers could still unknowingly be ingesting one of carrageenan’s uglier synthetic cousins. One popular alternative, gellan gum, is especially nefarious.
Studies show that gellan gum, which is produced in a lab from bacterial excrement, has been proven to “bulk stool” (already an unpleasant phrase), meaning that it can lead to inflammation in the intestines. When this happens, by increasing the size of the stool as it passes through the gut, it can cause even bigger problems later on—irritation and internal bleeding, for starters.
To add insult to injury, gellan gum uses corn syrup in processing, an ingredient that may not always meet GMO regulations.
In short, healthy consumers should always buy with their conscience to ensure that their dollar is supporting sustainable and wholesome practices from farm to table. Then, only the best and healthiest foods make it to family dinner.