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Understanding Carrageenan: What Is It and How Does It Get Used in Food?


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Carrageenan is found in processed food, surprising many. Carrageenan contains various components; however, one component that often goes overlooked is one made up of different kinds of seaweed, even though its inclusion is an essential step in food production processes. We will now discuss more in-depth what carrageenan is, the different forms it comes in and its uses within food manufacturing during subsequent paragraphs.

What Is Carrageenan?

Hydrocolloids – commonly referred to as carrageenan – when combined with water, can form viscous solutions and gels that have the characteristics of thick solutions or gels, similar to red seaweed belonging to Eucheuma or Kappaphycus genera; some forms of hydrocolloids including carrageenan are one source. With such abundant sources in coastal regions across North America and beyond, carrageenan makes an easily accessible yet eco-friendly component in our coastal environments.

Types Of Carrageenan

Kappa, iota, and lambda are the three primary forms of carrageenan. The food sector takes advantage of each kind, which has its distinct characteristics.

  1. Kappa Carrageenan: Kappa Carrageen forms strong and rigid gels in the presence of calcium ions. As it can improve the consistency of dairy products like chocolate milk, ice cream and yogurt it is often utilized. Furthermore, its use helps preserve moisture for improved product quality in meat items as well.
  2. Iota Carrageenan: Iota carrageenan can be stimulated with calcium ions to produce soft yet stretchy gels suitable for many different applications, from thickening dairy-based treats such as custard and pudding, stabilization of salad dressings with an emulsifier, thickening bread products like gluten-free bakery goods like baking sheets etc. to thickening bread products in general.
  3. Lambda Carrageenan: Cosmetics, dairy-free milk alternatives, and processed foods use lambda carrageenan as a thickener. Due to being free from calcium ions present in its environment and adding velvety textures to products containing it.
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Carrageenan is extracted in what manner?

  • Harvesting: Seaweed is typically harvested by hand or through mechanical means from coastal areas.     
  • Washing: The harvested seaweed is thoroughly washed to remove any sand, salt, or other impurities.
  • Alkaline Treatment: The seaweed is treated with an alkaline solution, usually potassium hydroxide (KOH), to soften it and facilitate the extraction process.
  • Hot Water Extraction: The softened seaweed is then boiled in hot water, and the carrageenan is released into the water. Straining the liquid removes particulates after extraction.
  • Precipitation: To separate carrageenan from the water, the extracted liquid is cooled and sometimes acidified. Carrageenan particles then form and are collected.
  • Drying And Milling: The collected carrageenan is dried and ground into a fine powder, which is ready for use in various food products.

Applications In Food Industry 

The food industry finds several uses for carrageenan, a component with many potential uses. Here are some common uses:

  • Dairy Products: To make ice cream, yogurt, and chocolate milk more stable, improve smoothness, and minimize ice crystal formation, carrageenan is a common ingredient.
  • Meat And Seafood: In processed meats, carrageenan helps retain moisture, improve texture, and reduce cooking loss. It keeps water and oil from separating in canned tuna.
  • Desserts: Carrageenan is used in a variety of desserts, including gelatin-free gummy candies, fruit gels, and dairy-free puddings, to provide a desirable texture.
  • Bakery Products: It can be found in some baked goods, such as pie fillings and cake icings, where it acts as a thickening agent and enhances moisture retention.
  • Beverages: Carrageenan is used to stabilize and emulsify beverages like plant-based milk alternatives, ensuring a smooth and creamy texture.
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Many edibles contain carrageenan derived from red seaweed. Carrageenan increases consistency, stability, and overall product quality thanks to this substance’s inclusion as part of their ingredients; its forms vary, with each possessing unique features that contribute to improved products. While questions arise as to its safety as an additive food ingredient, regulatory bodies confirm its use nonetheless despite concerns. With knowledge about the role carrageenan plays in food processing processes comes greater customer insight for making informed decisions and increasing understanding.

Bellie Brown
Bellie Brown
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