Irish sea moss is a “red seaweed” variety that is often sourced from the Chondrus crispus species, but is also derived from the genus Gracilaria, a less leafy variation. Chondrus crispuscommonly grows off the shores of Ireland, Great Britain, the Atlantic coastlines of the U.S. and Canada, most European shores as well as Iceland. Whereas gracilaria, another type of red marine algae also referred to as irish moss, comes from warmer oceanic environments.
Chondrus crispus or gracilaria, being very mucilaginous when soaked in water, is one that you wouldn’t normally eat like dulse, kelp or nori seaweeds. It additionally has a tough and rubbery texture that is largely inedible. Although it is traditionally simmered and consumed as a liquid broth, modern-day recipes often use the raw blended gel which can be added to various foods and drinks as a nutritious thickening agent. It is often used as a vegan substitute for gelatin as it provides a similar consistency.
Irish moss is a natural source of carrageenan, which makes up to about 55% of its volume and is what is responsible for its properties as a gelling medium.
What is Carrageenan and Is It Good for Us?
Carrageenan extract or gum is not the same thing as whole irish moss seaweed.
Carrageenan extract is an emulsifier and food additive that has been used in the commercial food industry for decades in yogurt, ice cream, dairy milk, and even organic boxed vegan milks to enhance the textures of these packaged products. It is also used as a stabilizer in other processed foods, as well as a common ingredient in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, pesticides and toothpastes.
The use of carrageenan extract has been the subject of much debate among health conscious consumers for its studied links to a variety of gastrointestinal disorders including inflammatory bowel syndrome, intestinal ulcerations and tumor growths.
There has been quite a lobby of people, including the Cornucopia Institute, protesting the FDA’s approval of carrageenan as a safe food additive for these reasons.
Irish Moss Carrageenan Vs. Carrageenan Extract
Carrageenan, a type of polysaccharide, can be derived from irish moss (Chondrus crispus), in addition to other varieties of red edible seaweeds, like Kappaphycus alvarezii, one of the most important commercial sources according to Wikipedia. (Source)
Chemically processed carrageenan extract, also called “food grade” carrageenan, is nutritionally diminished and is not the same substance as whole irish moss seaweed. Manufactured carrageenan is an isolated compound extracted from red seaweeds and treated with harsh alkali solutions, like potassium hydroxide.
During processing the all-important cellulose is removed from the seaweed and the use of 5–8% potassium hydroxide is employed. “Potassium hydroxide solutions with concentrations of approximately 0.5 to 2.0% are irritating when coming in contact with the skin, while concentrations higher than 2% are corrosive.” (Source)
In an article provided by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, it essentially refers to potassium hydroxide as a toxic poisonous chemical that can have serious health effects if ingested. The amounts of potassium hydroxide present in carrageenan extract remains to be proven, but is a factor to take into consideration regarding its given side-effects.
Moreover, another important concern is that food-grade carrageenan can be degraded by acids in the stomach, turning it into poligeenan, a potential carcinogenic substance. According to the Cornucopia Institute and theirCarrageenan Report, “Degraded carrageenan (poligeenan) is such a
potent inflammatory agent that scientists routinely use it to induce inflammation and other disease in laboratory animals, to
test anti-inflammation drugs and other pharmaceuticals.”
Irish Moss Benefits
A Nourishing and Energizing Food Source
Irish moss contains many beneficial vitamins and trace minerals such as sulfur, iodine, iron, calcium, selenium, magnesium, potassium and folate. Irish moss flakes, from the Chondrus crispus species, have small red-leafed blades that contain higher amounts of iodine than the whole moss strands, but generally the seaweed is not considerably high in iodine compared to that of kelp, bladderwrack and other sea vegetables.
As mentioned, the seaweed broth has been used for centuries as a building food, nourishing those recovering from debilitating illness, fatigue, physical injury or traumas. This practice was largely employed during the 19th century Irish famine (1845 and 1852) to strengthen the body and speed recovery from malnourishment and weakened physical states.
The seaweed is also a “time released” energizing fuel source, providing long chain polysaccharides that help to deliver nutrients over a longer period of time for a slower and more sustained nutritional uptake.