If you have ever checked the list of ingredients on your favorite ice cream, yogurt, chocolate milk or frozen pizza, you’ve probably seen carrageenan listed. Whether you have noticed it before or not, carrageenan has been used in packaged foods for over 50 years, and its history in the world’s food supply dates back even further.
Carrageenan is made from a type of red seaweed known as Chondrus crispus. Archaeologists estimate humans have been harvesting seaweed, like Chondrus crispus, for nearly 14,000 years. Evidence of red seaweed’s medicinal benefits in China can be traced back to 600 BC, and it was originally used as a food source around 400 BC on the British Isles.
Often referred to as Irish moss, the thick seaweed used for carrageenan grows abundantly along the rocky coastline of the Atlantic, including the shores of the British Isles, North America and Europe. This seaweed is especially abundant along Ireland’s rocky coastline, where it has been cultivated for hundreds of years for both its gelling properties in foods as well as purported medicinal purposes. In fact, carrageenan’s name comes from Carrigan Head, a cape near Northern Ireland, the title of which was inspired by the Irish word “carraigín,” which translates to “little rock.” In the 19th century, the Irish believed carrageenan could cure sick calves along with human colds, flu and congestion. First, the seaweed was harvested and laid out to dry. Then it was washed and boiled before being added to flans, tonics and even beer. Used similarly to gelatin, carrageenan became a key ingredient in the classic Irish pudding, Blancmange, a delicately-set cream dessert. Blancmange is still made in Ireland, where whole pieces of dried red seaweed can be purchased in local markets.
The Irish Potato Famine
Carrageenan was also used to combat nutritional deficiencies in the 1800s during the Irish Potato Famine. The red seaweed was added to warmed milk with sugar and spices to create a fortified beverage. This drink is still consumed today in both Ireland and the Caribbean. As Irish immigrants fled famine and came to the United States, the first American seaweed farming production was established off the coast of Massachusetts. However, it wasn’t until World War II, when a similar ingredient called agar was no longer available, that carrageenan soared in popularity in the US food supply.
Since the mid-20th century, carrageenan has and continues to be used in many products such as chocolate milk, ice cream, frozen foods and many organic items. It is now consumed in nearly every region of the world, including the US, Europe, China, Japan and Brazil. For more information on carrageenan, please review our Sources of Food Ingredients or visit Marinalg.org.