Algae appears in ice cream and an assortment of other supermarket products, such as prepackaged baked goods and desserts, mousses, cosmetics and toothpaste. The food industry primarily relies upon red and brown algae as sources of carrageenan and algin and uses these derivatives to thicken, emulsify and stabilize ice cream. Manufacturers list these constituents under a product's labeled ingredients interchangeably as either red algae, brown algae, red seaweed, algae, seaweed, algin or carrageenan.
Algae and Ice Cream
The algae in ice cream belongs to a family of edible algae that are single-celled, or multicellular and plantlike, deriving their color from pigments, such as phycoerythrin and fucoxanthin. Carrageenan is both a polysaccharide and a fiber, occurring naturally in various species of red algae. Each species yields its own type of carrageenan. Each type of carrageenan has its own emulsifying and congealing properties and its own unique density, yielding hard gels or softer, slimier gels. The global food industry began widely using carrageenan during World War II.
Carrageen and Dairy
But what of the connection between algae and dairy? By the early 19th century, the Irish had perfected a 600-year-old tradition of extracting carrageenan from red algae. They boiled the red algae with milk to make pudding, or drank this concoction to ease the symptoms of respiratory ailments. Irish immigrants took this recipe with them to Britain and the United States, inadvertently passing on their knowledge about boiling red algae to obtain gelling agents.
How the Food Industry Uses Brown Algae
Brown algae in the form of kelp supplies algin, another ingredient that appears frequently in ice cream. Algin has properties of a gel, and its microscopic particles evenly disperse throughout another substance. Like carrageenan, algin helps to absorb and uniformly suspend water in fat, improving moisture retention and evening ice crystal formation. Algin prevents ice crystals from sticking together and forming clumps in a mixture of chilling cream.
Red Algae = Irish Moss
Irish moss isn't moss at all; it's red algae, Chondrus crispus. Sometimes called carrageen moss, one theory suggests the word carrageenan comes from the Gaelic word "carraigeen," meaning "rock moss." Health food companies sell Irish moss in dried whole and powdered form, marketing it as a vegetarian alternative to animal-based gelatin and emulsifiers.
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