If you take a look at your favorite dairy treats, you will probably find that just about all major food brands use carrageenan to help milk and milk products remain fresher longer. Ice cream, cottage cheese, yogurt, even frozen pizza—you name it—and the signature creamy texture that you might take for granted is probably brought to you by this familiar stabilizer.
Although you probably don’t think of seaweed when you take a sip of milk, on a molecular level carrageenan is helping to bind the water content in products like drink mixes and shakes to the ingredients that would otherwise float on top. This process influences the taste of high- and low-fat dairy products by improving textures and keeping consistency smooth.
The longer any dairy product sits, the more susceptible it becomes to alterations in taste. Emulsifiers and stabilizers are science’s answer to global demand for an array of delicious cheeses and creams, and they are what gives us the privilege of enjoying farm-fresh products from the convenience of the grocery store. And what fun would it be to would drink chocolate milk if all the chocolate sank to the bottom?
Science! Weird, tasty science.
The widest usage of carrageenan involves natural milk proteins. Since the early days of its discovery, carrageenan has been used in all sorts of milky gels like flans, evaporated milk and ice cream mixes. Stabilizers in milk products are from a group of compounds called food gums that add viscosity to mixtures at different points in the production process. In ice cream, for instance, they bond to existing proteins to prevent the migration of free water. In aiding suspension of various ingredients, carrageenan keeps liquids in one piece, which means your tub of rocky road stays scoopable and not a crystallized of ice chunks and nuts.
When it was first made commercially in 1940, carrageenan was used mainly in foods we already associate with a thicker gelled texture, like chocolate milk and puddings. Today, science has helped discover that carrageenan can be used in place of harmful chemicals in many useful and unexpected ways, especially in dairy products. Scientists have discovered an array of uses for carrageenan in improving the mouthfeel and cooking properties of milk products—from subtle thickening to the formation of a gel you could almost walk on.
Not only do these results run the full range of dairy usage and beyond, they’re also remarkably hard to accomplish with non-carrageenan stabilizer alternatives. Many chemicals and concoctions would have to be combined to achieve the same texture that just a dash of carrageenan could do.
Ultimately in most cases, the fewer ingredients in a product, the better it is for you and your family. Don’t take the risk with lesser-known alternatives, especially when it comes to your indulgences.