By David McCoy, Dairy Insights LLC

A new third-party blind survey of dairy food and beverage professionals making formulation decisions reflects the contradictions dairy processors face when choosing stabilizers and thickeners for dairy products.

Carrageenan is a widely used stabilizer in dairy foods to deliver important characteristics such as product consistency and mouthfeel in everything from ice cream to chocolate milk. 

Currently, a recommendation by a handling subcommittee of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) suggests that carrageenan be removed from a list of nonorganic ingredients allowed in organic food as it is not “essential” despite the fact that the stated alternatives are neither organic nor work as well as carrageenan.

Critics contend that alternatives can replace carrageenan; however, the respondents in this survey emphatically disagree. 

In an independent survey conducted by Clear Seas Research [Editor’s note: a unit of BNP Media, the publisher of Dairy Foods], carrageenan was chosen as the clear “essential” choice for most survey participants, with only xanthan gum a close competitor.

Carrageenan is easy-to-use, effective in dairy products

Carrageenan was compared to xanthan gum, locust bean gum, gellan gum and an “other” category. Carrageenan ranked significantly higher in ingredient preference over both locust bean gum and gellan gum, and far surpassed gellan gum in terms of additive performance and functional characteristics and its overall essentiality rating. Carrageenan stood out as an ingredient that is both easy to use and highly effective in dairy product formulations.

Carrageenan is derived from red seaweed

The survey drew responses from 69 professionals who participated in a detailed, lengthy discussion of carrageenan and its relationship to other additives. The respondents in the survey represented a variety of job functions in the dairy industry from plant managers to formulators, with 94% having at least shared responsibility for food additive decisions. These are people who carefully evaluate food additives and they are fully aware of the basic facts about carrageenan:

•    It is derived from red seaweed that is sustainably harvested by farmers in places like Indonesia or The Philippines
•    It is classified by the NOSB as “non-synthetic,” as opposed to some competing products classified as “synthetic”
•    It does not alter taste or color and is readily available
•    It has an extensive, well-established, safety profile and has been used successfully for decades and, in its raw seaweed form, for centuries
•    It has been studied, reviewed and approved by scientists, review panels and regulatory agencies all over the world

Consumers want clean labels, reduced fat

So why are formulators of dairy products being confronted with the challenge of reformulation? Consumers reject products that ask that we “shake well before using.” The same consumers often want clean labels, reduced fat and ingredients as close to organic as possible. In an era when social media and flawed science often drive consumer choice, formulators are forced to make decisions in response to those demands, knowing that a choice made under pressure may not be the best choice.

Carrageenan is ‘essential’ in certain dairy formulas

This anonymous survey of those directly involved in the choice of stabilizing food additives in the dairy industry, conducted in September 2016, made the emphatic point that carrageenan was “essential” to certain dairy food formulations. And most agree that replacing the additive comes with significant organizational challenges in terms of product reformulation and cost increases.

Those surveyed cited bad press and perceptual issues as disadvantages for carrageenan. In their own opinions, though, carrageenan was identified as “extremely safe” by 80% of respondents – the highest safety opinion of all the ingredients.

In fact, the NOSB’s handling subcommittee agreed with the survey participants. In its recommendation the subcommittee said:

“We found that for some uses, particularly in dairy products and nondairy milk-like beverages, there were suitable alternatives such as gellan gum, xanthan gum and guar gum, although without carrageenan there is a tendency for sediments to collect at the bottom, and the beverage has to be shaken vigorously.” 

NOSB finds no widespread negative impacts of carrageenan

As to safety, the handling subcommittee said: “We find that the body of scientific evidence does not support claims of widespread negative human health impacts from consumption of carrageenan in processed foods. We appreciate that there may be some individuals who have a sensitivity to the material, but even that is not entirely clear from the body of scientific research.”

Given the facts, why would a subcommittee of the NOSB come to a recommendation that may be unprecedented in that it would remove a safe, effective ingredient when there is no organic alternative? 

While no final decision has yet been made, it is evident to anyone attending its meetings that the NOSB is often under the same unrelenting pressure to make unwarranted decisions as the people who formulate dairy foods.

David McCoy is the managing director of Dairy Insights LLC., an independent technical consulting company located in Muskego, Wis.