For many years, I have worked hard to be very attentive of my surroundings and to notice things. That is a very broad statement, but I am always on the lookout for various things. For example, noticing where fire extinguishers / AEDs / exits are in a building. If I’m at my home or place of work, I try to notice if there is anything out of place or unusual. And when I am out being a tourist, I always make sure to read the plaque. You never know when you might discover something interesting. Case in point, the other day when I was getting a haircut, on the street corner outside the barber’s shop, there was a small medallion pressed into the concrete of the sidewalk. It had the name of the city and simply read “City Monument”. I do not know why it was there or what it meant, as I have not found any other information about it. But it was interesting to note, and made me wonder how many other people who live there walk by it every day and don’t even know about it.
This hobby (if you can call it that) extends to smaller, more mundane things as well. I make a point of reading labels on packaging. You can learn a lot that way. For example, if you look at the various shampoos, soaps, deoderants, and other items you have in your bathroom, you may be surprised how few companies are actually responsible for all the different brands you have. And I am often amused by the statements companies (especially foods) make on their packaging. A pack of gummy worms I got said “Colors from real sources!”. As opposed to fake sources? According to my food scientist friend, this just means that they didn’t meet the requirement to be able to say “natural sources“. Or how about a package of chicken that says “No added hormones!”. Well yeah, the FDA prohibits artificial hormones in chicken. So they’re just bragging that they meet the bare minimum required by law.
But today I noticed something else on the pack of chicken I was purchasing: “Contains up to 15% chicken broth, carrageenan, and salt”. “What the heck is carrageenan,” I thought, “and what is it doing in my chicken?” After getting home, I decided to do some research. It turns out that carrageenan is a naturally-derived compound used in the food industry primarily for thickening and stabilizing. It is made from boiling and straining certain kinds of red algae (aka seaweed). The resulting mixture is then refined, and can then be used as a food additive. It is used in processed meat to help it retain water and slice more easily. It may also find its way into foods like ice cream, sauces, and soy milk to help thicken them. Similarly, it can be found in toothpaste, shampoo, and other non-food products for similar reasons. It is very similar to another, more commonly known product (at least if you grew up watching the Food Network, like I did) called agar. Agar is also made from red algae, and can be used as a thickener and gelling agent.
While carrageenan is a natural product, foods with it are no longer allowed to be labeled “organic” in the United States. This was the result of a few studies which seemed to suggest there was a possibility of it causing adverse effects in humans. However, no strong evidence has emerged to support these claims, even though it has been used as far back as 600 BCE. However, they have only been used on an industrial scale since 1930.
So there you have it, something new I learned just by paying attention to small details others often skip. Remember that we live in a time where it’s incredibly easy to get answers to things like this, thanks to the internet. So keep your eyes open, and stay curious!
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