Today’s ubiquitous use of the compound that forms carrageenan comes from humble beginnings, dating back centuries ago to the coasts of Ireland and Brittany. The people in these regions, known for their resourcefulness, found a use in their diet for a foraged seaweed called Irish moss by boiling it in milk. Home chefs would then siphon off this froth for use in other recipes, notably to turn simple cow’s milk into creamy, delicious puddings.

Their crude use of chemistry was actually harvesting the seaweed’s naturally occurring carrageenan. Flash-forward a few hundred years, and science now provides us the know-how to apply this basic, natural reaction to all manner of foods at various points in the production process.

Just like those early harvesters, food companies today use carrageenan as a simple, holistic solution to food storage and presentation, but in much more than just traditional milk products. Today, a wide range of dairy and nondairy milks, desserts, kefirs, creamers and condiments uses these properties in place of harsher, less natural stabilizers.

Buyer, beware! Labels DO matter.

Not all companies employ the same basic practices. Chemically produced additives including gellan gum and others like xanthan are not harvested, but instead are produced by bacterial fermentation. And, put bluntly—if it comes from bacteria excrement, it can mess up your own.

Studies have shown that gums in general can be a problem for those with digestive issues simply because they’re mostly indigestible—which is why many consumers avoid dairy to begin with! In small doses, these stabilizers may seem harmless, but combine those small doses across the range of otherwise healthful dairy-free products you may be consuming throughout the day, and it can cause big problems.

If you stick to a vegetarian, vegan, kosher, parve, low-fat, gluten free, dairy free, soy free, wheat free or yeast-free diet—AND want to keep healthy to boot—carrageenan is great news. Using carrageenan in place of chemical additives and artificial compounds ensures that making the wholesome choice, no matter your restrictions, is easier today than ever before.

How do you keep an eye on what you’re putting in your gut? Read the label! And opt for natural over man-made for a healthier approach.