Cargill's latest product, Satiagel ADG 0220 Seabrid, is part of the wider Satiagel range.
“What’s totally new and unique with this launch is that it is now possible to simulate the functionality that in the past came from wild seaweed from Chile with cultivated seaweed,” said Xavier Martin, global seaweed product manager for Cargill starches, sweeteners and texturizers.
Cultivated and wild harvested carrageenan produce slight differences in texture which make a big difference to manufacturers.
Anne-Laure Rouger, dairy application specialist at Cargill said: “Usually with wild carrageenan we have a creaminess and thick body while cultivated carrageenan gives a high firmness but with elasticity and brittleness. It’s less creamy as well. This limited functionality is the reason we use extracts from wild seaweed.”
Previously the only way to get the creamy texture expected in gelled, dairy-based desserts such as crème caramel and flan was by collecting seaweed from the cold waters of Chile.
But this has a much slower growing cycle, taking between seven and nine months to reach maturity - compared to just one month for the Cottonii variety which grows in the warm waters of Indonesia and the Philippines - keeping prices high.
Natural disasters, such as the earthquake that rocked Chile in 2010 leaving 525 people dead, also mean the supply chain is vulnerable and susceptible to price spikes.
A stable and controlled supply chain
“We use a specific process with very precise parameters to achieve this unique functionality,” said Martin, without revealing details of the actual process itself or where Seabrid carrageenan is cultivated.
“[Seabrid] means we are not dependent on a natural resource. We can control the supply, it’s more secure, the cycle of maturity is shorter and the impact on the environment is smaller.”
For manufacturers, it means the same results for a lower price. The actual savings will depend on quantity bought but, to give an idea, Martin said Cargill itself is seeing at least a 50% reduction in raw material costs compared to wild carrageenan, although it must then factor in the novel processing technique which is more expensive than standard methods.
“If we compare the cheapest carrageenan, Cottonii, and the most expensive wild seaweed from Chile, we are somewhere in between,” said Martin.
Cargill currently has the capacity "to meet market needs", and can produce several hundred metric tonnes a year.
Carrageenan has been the subject of a recent backlash in the US, with the National Organic Review Board deciding to remove it from the list of allowable non-organic ingredients in organic products and some studies suggesting it could be linked to inflammation.
“We are aware of this situation in the US and we feel it’s really unfair because there is absolutely no science justifying this,” said Martin. "Some [US] manufacturers are reluctant to launch a new product with carrageenan just based on this communication [...] but we are actively trying to improve the reputation.”
In Europe, however, this negative publicity has had no direct effect. In fact, the number of launches using the seaweed, listed as E 407 and also known as Irish Moss, is actually on the rise, said Martin.
"Carrageenan can allow our customers to reduce E numbers to only one essential [additive] and makes food products very affordable, “The trend there is for clean label.
"As an ingredient carrageenan is synergistic with protein, effective in bringing specific textures, has a natural origin and is a vegetable source."
Strong European demand, absent in North America
It expects demand to come from southern European countries, such as France, Italy and Spain where desserts such as crème brûlée, crème caramel and flans are traditional treats and popular alternatives to individual pots of fruit-flavoured yoghurt, as well as Africa, Latin America and, possibly, the Middle East.
The Asian and North American markets are exceptions.
“We’re starting to see some desserts like this produced in China but it’s mostly the EU,” said Martin. “In North America we did some [market] investigations to see if these preferences are changing but they’re not. It’s not something that consumers are familiar with. One or two companies tried to introduce this type of dessert there but it wasn’t popular.”
Cargill has 20 plants around the world that manufacture plant-based texturisers derived from crops (starches, soy proteins and lecithins, seaweeds (carrageenans), fruits (pectins) and sugar fermentation (xanthan gum).