Erick Ask, on the other hand, who now works for the FMC Corporation, a major carrageenan processor, says "we find it very disheartening. Tens of thousands of farmers base their livelihood on a healthy carrageenan market, and now some of it is eroding."
This little-known ingredient has a surprisingly long history. A couple of centuries ago, people who lived along the coast in Ireland and Brittany were picking up a kind of seaweed called Irish moss. "They would take it home and boil it, usually in milk," says Ask. The boiling released a substance that formed the structure of the seaweed's cells. That material was carrageenan. It didn't have much taste, but it thickened milk and helped turn it into creamy pudding.
This processing of carrageenan now takes place on a global scale. The FMC Corporation, for example, buys seaweed from thousands of small farmers around the world, but mostly in Indonesia and the Philippines. The farmers live along the coast and grow seaweed in the ocean, "right off-shore from their houses," Ask says.
Once extracted and dried, carrageenan is a cream-colored powder that looks kind of like bread flour. FMC sells it to food manufacturers.
Lisa Pitka is one of the people who figures out how best to use it. She's a food technologist with Mattson, a company that works with lots of different food manufacturers to fine-tune their recipes.
"Very often I use carrageenan in beverages; high-protein beverages, extended shelf-life beverages," she says. If those products sit on the shelf for a while, their contents can start "gelling," appearing spoiled, or the various ingredients may separate. Particles of cocoa powder may settle to the bottom. Carrageenan keeps the mixture bound together. "It helps to keep the product thick and creamy, and [keep] the product from becoming unappealing to the customer," Pitka says.
Carrageenan is also added to deli meat to keep it from falling apart when you slice it.
Its use has soared in the past few decades. Erick Ask estimates that 5,000 tons of seaweed was harvested for carrageenan production in 1970. Today, it's over 200,000 tons. According to a report from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, global carrageenan use increased more than five-fold from 2000 to 2010.
Now, though, there's a carrageenan backlash.
A few scientists have reported that carrageean has caused intestinal inflammation in laboratory animals. Hundreds of people have come forward to say that their health problems — from migraines to intestinal issues — improved when they eliminated carrageenan from their diet.
That evidence is disputed. Other scientists say that they tried to confirm those laboratory results and failed. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as the European Commission and the World Health Organization, say that they still believe carrageenan is safe.
Nevertheless, activist groups have been campaigning to get food companies to stop using it.
And Barbara Shpizner, vice president of innovation at Mattson, says that the company is seeing the effects of that pressure. "Clients in the natural channel, or organic products, are saying, 'Let's formulate without carrageenan,' " she says.
There are other additives that can replace carrageenan, she says. They include gellan gum, locust bean gum and xanthan gum. But you often need to add a combination of these ingredients, and they don't always work as well. She'd rather use carrageenan.
Organic food companies, though, probably won't have a choice. The National Organic Standards Board, which advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture on rules for the organic industry, recently voted to ban carrageenan from organic food. If the USDA, as expected, adopts that recommendation, the ban could take effect within two years.