The Dilemma Of Carrageenan- Culinary Use!

Carrageenan, alias Irish Moss is a commonly used food additive, extracted from red seaweed. When processed with alkali, it is used as natural food ingredient and called as under graded carrageenan. But when it is acid in place of alkali, Carrageenan is degraded into a substance with low molecular weight, and is called “degraded carrageenan” or poligeenan.  Since entailing peculiar properties, due to its unique chemical structure, Carrageenan has had a great significance in the food-processing industry. While degraded carrageenan is discarded as unwholesome and deleterious, undegraded carrageenan is often spared and is considered safe. A myriad of products such as ice cream, canned soup, baby formula, chocolate milk, deli meats, frozen prepared foods  Rice milk, juice coconut milk, lunch meats, frozen Organic Pizza contain carrageenan. From the big chains of supermarket to the small mom and pop stores, carrageenan has deluged the market and concretised its place as an indispensable food-additive.

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Although it does nothing to please your taste buds, adds no flavour and is also nil as far as nutritional value is concerned. Carrageenan serves as a substitute substance for fat and thickens foods with low or no fat. It recreates a fatty “mouthfeel” in products such as low-fat or non-fat dairy products and veg dairy substitutes. It is because of this reason that we relish creamy ice creams to quench summers. It can also serve as a stabilizer for products specially beverages that required to be shaken before use. Therefore addition of carrageenan allows beverages like chocolate milk or nutritional shakes to be consumed without shaking or stirring. Owing to their large, highly flexible molecules that curl forming helical structures, they also form a variety of different gels at room temperature.

Like everything else in this world, Carrageenan has its days numbered. The prolonged scientific research and tests and the recent campaign for organicalness has scrutinised the usage of carrageenan in food-processing. The perusal of the scientific literature available, on the harmlessness or harmfulness of carrageenan is again all rage among the consumers.

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The dietary studies have pointed to the flipper side of this algal extract. Is Carrageenan safe? Carrageenan because of its chemical structure stimulates a natural immune response in the body, which is considered to be a harmful invader, which eventually leads to inflammation.  The degradation of carrageenan during its passage in the acidic medium of the gastrointestinal tract is now being associated with the occurrence of intestinal ulcerations and frequent belly bloats.

For those who have their intake of carrageenan on a regular basis, the inflammation may become chronic and constant, which is a serious health concern since prolonged inflammation is a symptom of many other serious diseases. One of the particular immune pathways activated by carrageenan is similar to those activated by other “natural” poisons, such as pathogenic bacteria including Salmonella. This inflammation might be associated with over many diseases, including bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and arteriosclerosis and even colon cancer. Chronic low-grade inflammation in the body is profoundly unhealthy.

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So the does the eyesight of all the carrageenan containing products lurking in your refrigerator pose questions that is driving you bonkers? The easy answer that the carrageenan manufactures have is that the scientific studies pointing towards the insalubrity of carrageenan are based on unfounded grounds. Many overseas regulatory agencies have given the green flag and adjudged that carrageenan is safe. Therefore agribusiness and biotechnology corporations have defended their products. United Nation’s Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has reviewed carrageenan and approved its continued use, which has further confirmed that carrageenan is safe.

The best way out for a consumer, to make choice from this chalk and cheese combination is to switch to using products that use carrageenan substitutes. Food processors use gums, such as guar gum and locust bean gum, as alternatives to carrageenan. The simplest alternative to carrageenan is to write “shake well before use” in products such as chocolate milk shakes, to have the consumer shake the product right before use.

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