Carrageenan, which comes from a seaweed known as Irish Moss, is a naturally occurring food extract used to improve and fortify many foods on the market today. While it has faced some very public backlash in the past several years at the hands of professional lobbyists and malaligned special interest groups, we are here to set the record straight on this scary-sounding ingredient that’s actually working in your favor behind the scenes.
While seaweed itself may not sound like the most appetizing addition to your shopping cart, creative use of sustainable additives is just one way that modern science has adapted to changing global needs. As such, global markets have embraced it, each in their own way.
Food overseas has always been more strictly regulated earlier in the production process. For example, Europe currently has much harsher, zero-tolerance policies on many health and environmental concerns when it comes to food, like the use of hormones and antibiotics, drug residues, antiseptics, GMOs, BPAs and certain inhumane farming practices.
The Litmus Test: Baby Food
The Follow-on Formulae Directive is Europe’s harsher, more restrictive version of our version of FDA infant regulations. Basically, it is a highly workshopped, universally guiding document that defines what’s allowed in “follow-on formula,” or formula that is guaranteed safe for babies as soon as they are born. Here, we just call it infant formula, but stricter food regulations in the UK go further to make this distinction.
In addition to outlining appropriate levels of certain essential nutrients and things like standards in language used for advertising these products, the directive lays out some guiding principles that affect the ingredients that the some 40 percent of mothers who use formula can and can’t feed their children. Some commonly consumed food ingredients that barely get so much as a second glance in the States—such as starch, xanthan gum, gelatin and agar—are notoriously prohibited by these standards.
What DOES the Directive Allow?
Lo and behold, carrageenan is one of the familiar names allowed in this categorization, where it is often used as a suspension aid, ensuring that the correct balance of required nutrients remains uniformly suspended throughout the liquid. Gellan, on the other hand, which is the ingredient almost always used to replace carrageenan’s suspension properties in instances where it is prohibited, is not.
An Ounce of Prevention
A key element of the way that European countries approach environmental and chemical concerns is what’s called the precautionary principle. This means that when independent science emerges questioning any mass-produced item’s safety, action is taken to protect consumers before damage is done—not the other way around. In contrast, the United States’ FDA often sets a very high bar for the “proof of harm” that must be demonstrated in a consumer product before regulatory action is taken, leaving the appeals process not only slow changing and cumbersome to navigate, but also wide open for influences from outside agencies lobbying their own agendas with something other than the public’s safety in mind.