Carrageenans are a family of polysaccharides extracted from red seaweed with water at high temperatures and refined using either an alcohol-precipitation or a gel-press method.
The most common red seaweed used for manufacturing carrageenan is Chondrus crispus, which grows along the northern part of the Atlantic.
Carrageenan is widely used as an additive in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and the food industry for its gelling, thickening, and stabilizing properties.
Commercial carrageenan is often diluted with sugars and mixed with salts to obtain gelling or thickening characteristics.
There are three commercial types of carrageenan, which vary in their functionality based on their degree of sulfation and number of galactose molecules.
- Iota. In the presence of calcium, iota carrageenan forms a soft gel.
- Kappa. In the presence of calcium, kappa carrageenan forms a stiff and brittle gel, but in the presence of potassium salts, it forms firm and elastic gels.
- Lambda. While not gel forming, lambda carrageenan can be used as a thickener.
Of these, kappa is the most used type of carrageenan in the food and beverage industry.
Depending on the desired property and application, one type or a combination of carrageenan types may be used. Combining carrageenan forms provide a synergistic effect.
For example, alone, both iota and kappa carrageenan have been shown to reduce ice crystal growth in sorbet, but a mix of the two may be more effective for preventing ice crystal growth.2
A kappa-iota hybrid carrageenan provides advantages of both types with high gel strength and water-binding with low syneresis.
Applications in the food industry and regulatory status
Owing to its favorable properties, carrageenan has various applications in food items.
Here’s a look at a few of those applications:1
|Ice cream||Stabilizer and emulsifier|
|Chocolate milk||Suspend cocoa particles|
|Coffee creamers, evaporated and condensed milk||Emulsifier|
|Whipping cream||Improve whipping and texture properties|
|Drink mixes||Provide texture with reconstitution|
|Low fat dressing and mayonnaise||Thickener and stabilizer|
|Pre-cooked poultry product||Improve texture, tenderness, and maintain juiciness when injected as brine|
|Beer||Clarification through precipitation with grain proteins|
|Custards, cream fillings||Stabilizer and gelling agent|
|Cheese||Stabilizer, water binding, and ease of grating or slicing|
|Sorbet||Gelling and prevention of ice crystal formation|
|Low-fat/low-sodium processed meat and poultry||Water binding|
|Fresh-cut packaged fruits||Prevent oxidation and maintain texture|
Carrageenans also have many applications in food packaging for improving film and coating properties.
The joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) have not given carrageenan and processed Eucheuma seaweed a specified an acceptable daily intake (ADI)
Carrageenan (E 407) and PES (E 401a) are approved food additives and may be used as quantum satis in many food categories under European Union (EU) regulations. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has established a temporary ADI of 75 mg per kilogram of bodyweight.
In the United States, carrageenan and PES are permitted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use as a food additive when used in the amount necessary for the intended effect.
Market and growth
The global carrageenan market is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.9% from 2020 to 2017, according to projections by Grand View Research.3
This demand is driven in part by the growing demand for thickeners and gelling agents from the food and beverage industries for products with natural ingredients. The ability of carrageenan to act as a fat replacer is also expected to increase its demand as consumers increasingly prefer low-calorie, convenient food products. Carrageenan also serves as an alternative to gelatin for vegan and vegetarian products.
However, as consumers increasingly read nutrition facts labels and are more selective of products based on ingredients, carrageenan has stood out as an ingredient to avoid for many.
These concerns are driven by research that has linked carrageenan to inflammation and cancer.4
While valid, these concerns are primarily based on a form called poligeenan, which, unfortunately, early studies did not distinguish between carrageenan and degraded carrageenan – or poligeenan.4 Poligeenan is not approved for use as a food additive.
Still, health concerns over carrageenan – while largely unfounded – may limit consumer acceptance and the market growth of carrageenan.
The bottom line
Extracted from red seaweeds, carrageenans are naturally occurring polysaccharides that provide gelation, viscosity, and structure to a variety of food applications.
The three types of carrageenan — kappa, iota, and lambda — vary in sulfation, which affects their functional properties.
The demand for natural thickener and gelling agents by the food and beverage industry is expected to drive the market growth of carrageenans to meet consumer preference for natural ingredients-based convenient food products. Still, misconceptions about the safety of carrageenan may limit consumer acceptance, forcing manufacturers to pivot and potentially reformulate.
- Zia KM, Tabasum S, Nasif M, et al. A review on synthesis, properties and applications of natural polymer based carrageenan blends and composites. Int J Biol Macromol. March 2017;96:282-301.
- Kamińska-Dwórznicka A, Janczewska-Dupczyk A, Kot A, Laba Sylwia, Samborska K. The impact of ι- and κ-carrageenan addition on freezing process and ice crystals structure of strawberry sorbet frozen by various methods. J Food Sci. January 2020;85(1):50-56.
- Grand View Research. Carrageenan market size: share and trends analysis report by product (kappa, iota, lambda), by function (thickener, gelling agent, stabilizer), but application, by region, and segment forecasts, 2020 — 2027. Published December 2020.
- McKim JM, Willoughby JA Sr, Blakesmore WR, Weiner ML. Clarifying the confusion between poligeenan, degraded carrageenan, and carrageenan: a review of the chemistry, nomenclature, and in vivo toxicology by the oral route. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2019;59(19):3054-3073.
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