Carageenan is a seaweed extract, commercially produced from red seaweed (Chondracanathus exasperatus), alternatively spelled as carrageenan, or carragheenan. It is a naturally occuring polysaccharide, used as an emulsifier and food stabilizer for pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and various food products, especially low-fat foods. It produces a less stiff gel than agar, the other main seaweed product, and is thus more suited to many more food products.
Carageenan is replacing animal product-derived gelatins as stabilizers or gelling agents for milk, ice cream, instant puddings, creams and sauces. It is also used to a lesser degree as filtering agent for beer and wine, a stabilizer for toothpaste, and as a meat extender. In the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, it serves as a thickener or binder for topical creams and lotions.
It takes its name from the Gaelic Carraig’n, or Irish moss (Carrageen, or Carragheen)(Chondracanthus crispus), from which carageenan was traditionally harvested in the mid-nineteenth century. During the great Irish potato famine, families living along the shorelines subsisted on Irish moss. Today, European carageenan is usually marketed as a health food, while most of the large commercial carageenan producers have located their operations in South East Asia.
It is estimated that the demand for carageenan requires over 250,000 tons of red algae harvested per year, grossing about US$100 million in sales worldwide (in 1997). 80% of the world's supply of carageenan powder is harvested and processed in the Philippines, mostly by large corporations buying raw seaweed from indigent families who gather and dry the algae by hand.
Some facts taken from Chondracanthus aquaculture (http://www.mbari.org/~conn/botany/reds/devon/aqua.htm) and Carageen moss (http://www.iol.ie/~kerry-web/carageencontent.html).