Carrageenan powder is a common ingredient used as a gelling agent, thickener, and stabilizer in many foods, especially dairy substitutes like non-dairy milks and vegan cheeses.
However, some people prefer to avoid carrageenan due to potential health concerns or for dietary restrictions. Fortunately, there are several effective substitutes for carrageenan powder.
What is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is extracted from red seaweed and is used to improve the texture and stability of many processed foods. There are three main types of carrageenan - kappa, iota, and lambda. Kappa-carrageenan forms strong, rigid gels and is commonly used to make vegan cheeses sliceable and stable. Iota-carrageenan produces soft gels and is used in dairy products like yogurt. Lambda-carrageenan thickens but does not gel.
While approved as a safe food additive, some studies link carrageenan to gastrointestinal inflammation, colon cancer, and ulcers in animals. The safety of carrageenan continues to be debated.
Why Replace Carrageenan?
There are a few reasons why someone may want to avoid carrageenan and use a substitute:
- Health concerns - Due to the potential inflammatory effects of carrageenan shown in some animal studies, some people prefer to limit exposure as a precaution.
- Dietary restrictions - Carrageenan is not vegetarian or vegan. Substitutes extend options for restricted diets.
- Availability - Carrageenan may not always be on hand or easy to find quickly. Alternatives that may already be in the pantry make a recipe easier to assemble.
- Cost - Substitutes like agar may be less expensive than carrageenan powder.
- Flavor - Some substitutes like locust bean gum are more neutral in taste than carrageenan.
Best Carrageenan Substitutes
Agar powder, also called agar-agar, is the best substitute for carrageenan and shares many similarities. Like carrageenan, agar is extracted from red algae and has excellent gelling properties.
The ratio is typically 1:1 for agar powder to replace carrageenan. For example, if a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of carrageenan, use 1 teaspoon of agar powder. Agar sets at room temperature, while carrageenan requires refrigeration. Adjust recipes accordingly.
Agar is a vegetarian and vegan alternative to gelatin. It dissolves in boiling water or liquid and solidifies as it cools. Use agar for jellies, puddings, ice cream, gummy candies, smoothies, sauces, salad dressings, soups, foams, and more.
Gelatin can effectively mimic the gelling properties of carrageenan and may already be on hand in most kitchens. Use gelatin powder or sheets. Substitute gelatin for carrageenan at a 1:1 ratio.
Gelatin requires chilling to set, while carrageenan gels at room temperature. It will not work as a replacement in recipes intended to gel at higher temperatures.
Gelatin dissolves in hot water between 160°F and 212°F. Let it bloom for 5 minutes before mixing into a recipe. Gelatin gels set firm in the refrigerator in a matter of hours.
The drawback to gelatin is that it is made from collagen extracted from animal bones and tissues, so it is not suitable for vegetarian, kosher, or halal diets.
Pectin is a soluble fiber found naturally in fruits like apples, oranges, and plums that gives jams and jellies their thick, spreadable texture. Pectin powder can be used in place of carrageenan when a vegan, vegetarian option is needed.
Use about 1 tablespoon of pectin for every teaspoon of carrageenan powder called for in a recipe. Pectin requires sugar to activate gelling. Add extra sugar when substituting pectin for carrageenan.
Pectin is not an exact substitute. It will thicken more than gel and provide a different texture and mouthfeel. Mix pectin with water first and bring to a boil to dissolve before adding to recipes. Use pectin for sauces, gravies, glazes, juices, soups, and vegan milks or yogurts.
Arrowroot is an excellent vegan thickener made from the starchy arrowroot plant. It can be used in place of carrageenan to thicken recipes rather than form gels.
To use arrowroot, first make a slurry by mixing the arrowroot powder with an equal amount of cool water. Then add the slurry at the end of cooking. Use about 2 teaspoons of arrowroot for every teaspoon of carrageenan powder.
Do not boil arrowroot for more than 30 seconds, as the starch will start to break down. Use arrowroot to thicken sauces, gravies, soups, stews, pie fillings, and puddings.
Guar gum is made from the seeds of the guar plant. Like carrageenan, it is high in soluble fiber. It can produce thick, viscous solutions.
Use guar gum at about a 1:3 ratio - 1 teaspoon of guar gum per 3 teaspoons of carrageenan. Guar gum does not gel but will add viscosity and stability.
Whisk guar gum into room temperature liquids then bring to a simmer while stirring constantly. Adding guar gum directly to hot liquids will cause clumping. Use guar gum to thicken milk, ice cream, sauces, gravies, soups, dressings, and baked goods. A little goes a long way.
Xanthan gum is a fermented sugar produced by bacteria that is used as a thickener and emulsifier. It is excellent at increasing viscosity and is often used in gluten-free baking.
Xanthan gum can mimic some of carrageenan's stability. Use about 1 teaspoon of xanthan gum for every 3 teaspoons of carrageenan powder. Like guar gum, xanthan gum should be whisked into cool liquids before heating to prevent clumping.
Use xanthan gum to add body and improve mouthfeel for salad dressings, sauces, soups, smoothies, and dairy substitutes like vegan yogurt, ice cream, and cheese.
Locust Bean Gum
Locust bean gum is an extract of carob seeds that acts as a natural thickening agent and stabilizer. It creates smooth textures and prevents ice crystals in frozen desserts.
Locust bean gum can replace carrageenan at a ratio of about 1:4 - 1 teaspoon locust bean gum per 4 teaspoons carrageenan powder. It will add viscosity but not form gels.
Locust bean gum should be mixed with sugar or liquids first. Then add it at the end of cooking by stirring thoroughly. Use locust bean gum in ice cream, cheeses, yogurt, cream cheese, sauces, soups and more.
How to Substitute Carrageenan Powder
When replacing carrageenan powder with an alternate thickener or gelling agent, here are some tips:
- Check the properties of the substitute - does it gel, thicken, stabilize, or emulsify?
- Note any special preparation or hydration required before use.
- Determine the appropriate ratio of substitute to replace the carrageenan. More or less may be needed.
- Add the substitute at the proper step in the recipe for the best results.
- Make any other alterations needed, like extra sugar if using pectin.
- The texture, consistency, appearance, and mouthfeel will likely differ from the original recipe.
- Be prepared to experiment and tweak recipes when substituting to get the right outcomes.
Carrageenan Powder Substitution Ratio
This table summarizes the typical substitution ratios for replacing carrageenan powder:
|Locust bean gum||1:4|
Key Takeaway: When substituting for carrageenan powder, use agar powder in a 1:1 ratio for the most similar gelling properties. For thickening only, use about 1 tablespoon of pectin or 2 teaspoons of arrowroot per teaspoon of carrageenan called for.
Carrageenan Substitution in Recipes
Many recipes, especially non-dairy milks, ice creams, and vegan cheeses depend on carrageenan powder to achieve the right texture. Substituting carrageenan requires making adjustments to both ingredients and techniques. Here are some examples:
Carrageenan is commonly used in nutritional yeast cheeses or vegan cream cheeses to add sliceability and stability.
- For a meltable cheese, gelatin makes the best replacement for carrageenan. Use a 1:1 substitution. Allow time for the cheese to set firmly in the refrigerator before slicing or melting.
- For a firm, sliceable cheese, agar powder can be used in place of carrageenan. Agar will produce a more brittle texture. Use a 1:1 ratio. Chill cheese quickly so agar sets before warming and melting.
- For aged or hard cheeses, carrageenan gives better results since agar must be dissolved in liquid first. Try adding agar flakes directly to the cheese recipe in place of carrageenan at a 1:1 ratio.
Carrageenan is added to many non-dairy milks like almond, oat, soy, and coconut to improve texture, prevent separation, and help suspensions.
- For a stable, creamy mouthfeel, xanthan gum or guar gum can work well in place of carrageenan. Use about 1 teaspoon per 3 teaspoons carrageenan.
- Pectin will help thicken non-dairy milks but may not fully prevent separation of ingredients. Use 1 tablespoon pectin for each teaspoon of carrageenan.
- Arrowroot can also help with thickness at a 2:1 ratio but on its own may not provide enough stability.
- Try a combination like xanthan gum for emulsifying and pectin or arrowroot for thickness.
Vegan Ice Cream
Carrageenan increases smoothness, reduces iciness, and prevents freezer burn in dairy-free ice creams.
- For optimum creaminess, use locust bean gum at a ratio of 1 teaspoon for every 4 teaspoons of carrageenan.
- Guar gum also improves texture and reduces iciness at 1 teaspoon guar gum per 3 teaspoons carrageenan.
- Pectin will add thickness and slow melting but may result in larger ice crystals. Use 1 tablespoon pectin per teaspoon carrageenan.
- Adding some alcohol, like 1-2 tablespoons vodka or rum per pint, can help reduce iciness when carrageenan is removed.
Is agar-agar the same as carrageenan?
Agar-agar and carrageenan are not the same. However, they are both extracted from red seaweed. Agar forms brittle gels while carrageenan makes more elastic gels. They can often be substituted for one another in recipes at a 1:1 ratio, with some texture and setting differences.
Can I make vegan cheese without carrageenan?
Yes, it is possible to make vegan cheese without carrageenan. The best substitutes are agar powder for firm cheeses and gelatin for meltable cheeses. Locust bean gum, gums like xanthan or guar, and starches can also be used. The texture may differ from carrageenan versions.
What can I use instead of carrageenan in ice cream?
Locust bean gum, guar gum, and gums make the best substitutes for carrageenan in ice cream. They help replicate the smooth, creamy texture. Pectin and starches will add thickness but may increase iciness. Adding a small amount of alcohol can also help reduce iciness.
Is carrageenan safe to eat?
According to U.S. food safety organizations, food-grade carrageenan is generally recognized as safe for consumption in the small amounts used as a food additive. Ongoing research continues to explore its long-term health impacts. Some choose to avoid it as a precaution.
What thickeners work like carrageenan?
Substitutes that mimic carrageenan's thickening properties include: xanthan gum, guar gum, locust bean gum, konjac gum, and to some extent powders like arrowroot, tapioca, cornstarch, and pectin. Start with a ratio of 1 teaspoon substitute per 3 teaspoons carrageenan.
Carrageenan powder is a versatile ingredient for stabilizing, gelling, and thickening applications, especially in dairy substitutes. However, for those wishing to avoid carrageenan, suitable replacements are available.
Agar-agar works best for gelling. For thickening, try arrowroot, pectin, or gums like xanthan, guar, or locust bean gum. Make adjustments to ratios, preparation, temperatures, and ingredients to achieve the closest texture. With some testing, carrageenan can be successfully substituted in many recipes.