Carrageenan: The Irish Gelling Agent And Thickener

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Humans have been using seaweed as a food for thousands of years and have been farming it for almost 3,000. The red seaweed from which carrageenan is extracted was in use as a medicine in China in 600 BC and as food in the British Isles by 400 BC.

Carrageenan was imported from Ireland to the US in the early years of American history up until 1835 to satisfy the demand from recent Irish immigrants. Carrageenan was an important part of the Irish diet, especially during the potato famine of the mid 19th century. In 1835, it was discovered that the seaweed from it is extracted could be found in the US, growing off the coast of Massachusetts. This discovery ended the dependence on Irish carrageenan.

Carrageenan extracts were in existence and documented as early as 1810 and its gelling properties documented in 1819. It was first called carrageenan around 1829. Carrigan Head in Northwest Ireland’s County Donegal is thought to be the name’s source.

Carrageenan extract was not produced commercially until 1937 despite the fact that a patent for the extraction process had been obtained a little more than a century earlier. World War II cut off the supply of agar from Japan, which resulted in the production of carrageenan extract expanding significantly. In fact, the war would propel carrageenan into a major role in food production and is largely the reason that it continues to be the main seaweed extract used all over the world.

Carrageenan flavor profile

Carrageenan’s function is not so much as a flavor enhancer, but as a stabilizer and for gelling. As a stabilizer, it prevents separation; as a gelling agent, it improves mouthfeel. Carrageenan is what gives ice cream its creamy texture and it does the same for yogurt.

Health benefits of carrageenan

Carrageenan is nutritionally neutral if you evaluate it solely in terms of vitamins and minerals. However, there are other ways to measure a food’s ability to enhance health, Carrageenan is a rich source of other important compounds. These compounds include:

  • Prebiotics: Carrageenan is rich in polysaccharides that stimulate the growth of gut microbiota that are important for human health. Adding it to your diet may be beneficial for gut and overall health.
  • Fiber: Like the seaweed from which it comes, carrageenan is a rich source of dietary fiber.
  • Antioxidants: Carrageenan contains compounds called oligosaccharides that have been shown to protect cells against oxidative damage.

The presence of the above nutrients enables carrageenan to provide a host of benefits including the treatment and prevention of conditions like:

  • High cholesterol: Carrageenan’s fiber is believed to be even more beneficial for lowering cholesterol than regular fiber. Studies have shown it to be useful for both the prevention and the treatment of cardiovascular disease.
  • Cancer: Cancer is just one of the health issues that can arise as a result of free radical damage. Carrageenan’s antioxidant properties help to protect the body from that damage.
  • Intestinal problems: Carrageenan’s prebiotic benefits can help to prevent intestinal damage from excessive alcohol consumption.

Common uses

The main use of carrageenan is in processed foods where it is a gelling agent as well as a textural enhancer. It is added to cheeses, ice creams and custards to make their textures more appealing. Home cooks can use it as a thickener for soups and sauces as well as in desserts.