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Is Carrageenan Vegan? Everything You Need To Know About This Food Additive In 2024

Donald Romeo

Updated on - Written by
Medically reviewed by Melissa Mitri, MS, RD

is carrageenan vegan
A vegan-friendly additive from red seaweed for food texture. Photo: Ba Le Ho

Carrageenan— a word that resonates with intrigue and curiosity. This food additive, derived from red edible seaweeds like Irish moss, has found its way into many processed foods, dairy products, and even vegan cheeses. 

But is carrageenan vegan, and will it fit into your vegan diet? This question dances on the tongues of vegan enthusiasts and food manufacturers alike. There are many types of carrageenan, such as kappa carrageenan and iota carrageenan, all of which are considered vegan.

The national organic standards board approves Carrageenana’s production process[1] as a thickening agent in plant-based foods. Continue reading as we explore carrageenan, other vegan alternatives like guar gum, and the perplexing world of carrageenan in vegan-friendly options. 

Is Carrageenan Vegan Friendly?

Yes, carrageenan is vegan-friendly. It is a food additive derived from red seaweed and is commonly used in various food products for its gelling, thickening, and stabilizing properties. Since it’s plant-based, it aligns with vegan dietary choices and is often found in vegan foods like dairy alternatives and processed vegan products.

Is Carrageenan Considered Vegan?

Carrageenan is truly a vegan food, a substance occupying a position in plant-based goods. Derived from seaweed, it serves as a plant-based ingredient that has become a popular additive in various food items. What sets carrageenan apart is its structure and versatile properties.

When used as a food additive,[2] carrageenan is highly regarded for its capacity to function as a thickener, gelling agent, emulsifier, and stabilizer. These characteristics make it an indispensable ingredient within the vegan industry. 

Whether utilized in vegan cheeses, dairy alternatives, or other plant-based delicacies, carrageenans’ role as a thickening agent has established it as a popular choice for organic food companies.

The utilization of carrageenan reflects the growing fascination with plant-based diets. It helps to enhance texture and consistency within various vegan products.

What Is Carrageenan?

Carrageenan is a compound derived from seaweed. These types produce carrageenan-derived kappa and iota, rigid gels widely recognized as additives in the food industry.

The popularity of carrageenan in food products stems from its properties[3] as a stabilizer, thickener gelling agent, and emulsifier. Its versatility makes it a valuable ingredient. 

Kappa carrageenan, in particular, is abundant in nature. It is extensively used to enhance protein and fiber content in food products.

Thanks to its role as a thickening agent, it has become a primary choice among manufacturers. It is commonly found in foods like ice cream and chocolate milk.

How Is It Made?

Carrageenan is a fascinating polysaccharide, a starch extracted from red algae. It is derived from species like Eucheuma and Kappaphycus, which account for over 90% of global production. This vegan-friendly food additive is vital to food quality and serving vegan customers worldwide.

Seaweed Farming

Carrageenan’s journey begins with the aquaculture-based farming[4] of red seaweeds, predominantly in Asian countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

Extraction

The carrageenan extract[5] involves treating the seaweed with solutions like 6% KOH2. Three major types of carrageenan are found in red algae— kappa, iota, and lambda, with kappa-carrageenan being the most common. These extracts are used for food, pharmaceutical applications, and biotechnology uses.

Sustainability

Modern extraction methods aim to integrate Irish moss[6] for carrageenan and other valuable components with nutritional and functional properties.

Cultivation Methods

Research and experimentation continue to optimize the growth and content of carrageenan in seaweeds. For instance, a study[7] on Kappaphycus alvarezii cultivated using the bottom-off method analyzed different spacing treatments to achieve the highest carrageenan yield.

Its Utility

Carrageenan has been utilized in successful vegan restaurants and products, as evidenced by a study on ethnography[8] and design thinking in the industry. Its application extends to producing functional additives, such as aquafaba from Korean soybean,[9] which serves as an egg white substitute in gluten-free, vegan cooking.

Is It Safe To Consume Carrageenan?

The answer to this depends on the type of carrageenan. Food-grade carrageenan and its degraded form are different. 

The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives has thoroughly evaluated carrageenan[3] and determined that food-grade carrageenan is safe for human consumption. In fact, they have determined that no specific limits are required for its consumption in food by establishing an acceptable daily intake of not specified.

The European Food Safety Authority has also conducted a review of carrageenan. It was determined to be safe in various processed foods,[10] including dairy products and vegan alternatives.

It’s important to note that safety concerns associated with carrageenan primarily pertain to its degraded form,[11] which is considered unsafe for consumption. Polygeenan or PGN is the new term for degraded carrageenan, and this form cannot be produced biologically; it must be produced in a laboratory setting.

Throughout history, misconceptions have arisen regarding carrageenan safety. However, food-grade carrageenan has a standing safety record[12] for human consumption.

When considering its safety, it’s important to understand the difference between food grade and degraded carrageenan. If you want to ensure that the carrageenan used in your food is safe, check the food labels and consult manufacturers and regulatory guidelines.

Vegan Foods Containing Carrageenan

Vegan Ice Cream

A study[13] on almond drink-based vegan ice cream production found that stabilizers like iota carrageenan can enhance the texture and stability of the final product. This research opens doors for more vegan ice cream options that are both delicious and environmentally sustainable.

Vegan Cheeses And Desserts

Carrageenan is used as a gelling and thickening agent in vegan cheeses, puddings, and desserts. It’s recognized as a safe food additive[14] and meets food-grade standards.

Plant-Based Meat Alternatives

Carrageenan is also utilized in the production[15] of meat products, where it helps to create a more desirable texture. For example, k-carrageenan has been used to prepare meat analogs.

Vegan Alternatives To Carrageenan

While carrageenan is generally considered vegan-friendly, some people prefer to explore other options for various reasons. Some of these may be due to dietary preferences or concerns regarding degraded carrageenan. Let’s take a look at vegan substitutes for carrageenan.

Guar Gum

Guar gum is a vegan alternative used as a thickening agent in food items. It is derived from guar beans and can be found in vegan cheeses, ice cream, and other dairy alternatives.

Locust Bean Gum

This is another plant-based thickener frequently used in chocolate and almond milk products. It is extracted from the seeds of the carob tree.

Agar Agar

Also known as moss, agar-agar is an algae-based gelling agent widely used in vegan desserts and other plant-based food options.

Xanthan Gum

Produced through the fermentation of sugars, xanthan gum, serves as a vegan thickening agent commonly found in dressings and sauces.

Gellan Gum

This gelling agent creates a gel-like texture and is often utilized in plant-based alternatives like vegan cheese and desserts.

Please note that you may choose from these alternatives based on your preferences or concerns about carrageenan consumption.

Conclusion

Carrageenan is derived from seaweed and is a popular thickening agent in vegan food. It’s vegan-friendly and used in many food products, including vegan cheeses and vegan meal delivery services. 

While it’s safe to consume, vegan alternatives like locust bean gum exist. Carrageenan can be found in various processed foods, from chocolate milk to vegan meal replacements

Those on a plant-based diet can also benefit from taking additional vitamins and minerals and eating plenty of fruits and veggies, and green powders to get all their nutrients. 

In conclusion, carrageenan is a valuable and versatile vegan-friendly food additive, contributing to a diverse and nutritious vegan diet.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why avoid carrageenan?

Some people choose to avoid carrageenan because they are concerned about its potential to increase inflammation and health risks. However, the scientific evidence on this matter is inconclusive.

Why doesn’t the FDA ban carrageenan?

The FDA hasn’t banned carrageenan because it is generally considered safe for consumption in food-grade forms. It’s worth noting that degraded carrageenan has raised some health concerns, but this is not used in food products.

What vegan foods have carrageenan in them?

Carrageenan can be found in vegan cheeses, dairy alternatives like almond milk, vegan meal replacements, and certain processed vegan products.

Is carrageenan in vegan meat?

Carrageenan may be present in vegan meat products as a binding and thickening agent.


+ 15 sources

Health Canal avoids using tertiary references. We have strict sourcing guidelines and rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic researches from medical associations and institutions. To ensure the accuracy of articles in Health Canal, you can read more about the editorial process here

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Donald Romeo

Medically reviewed by:

Melissa Mitri

Donald Romeo is a highly skilled health and wellness writer and a dedicated nutritional researcher. His expertise unravels the intricate connections between nutrition, holistic health, and well-being. With an astute understanding of nutritional science and a talent for translating complex concepts into accessible content, Donald brings valuable insights to his readers. He is committed to empowering individuals by providing practical and evidence-based advice to support their wellness journey. Through his engaging articles, Donald inspires readers to make informed choices, adopt healthier habits, and embrace a holistic approach to their overall vitality.

Medically reviewed by:

Melissa Mitri

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