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Irish Moss: The Atlantic Superfood You've Never Heard Of

If you're not familiar with Irish moss, we don't blame you. Unlike kale, broccoli, and blueberries, this is one superfood that's not exactly a household name. But once you get to know this unsung superhero of the food world a little better, we think you'll agree that Irish moss is one superfood that might just be finding its way into your next smoothie, pudding, or even ice cream.

But first, you're probably wondering...

What Is Irish Moss?

Irish moss (Chondrus crispus), which is also sometimes called Irish sea moss or carrageen moss—from the Irish word carraigín, which means "little rock"—is actually not moss at all. In fact, it's a species of red algae that grows along rocky sections of the Atlantic coast.

Although Irish moss grows along the coast of Ireland, it actually got its name during the potato famine of the 19th century, when the Irish were starving and ate the red algae to stay alive.

And if you think the name carrageen moss sounds a bit familiar, that's because Irish moss is the source of the food additive carrageenan, which is used as a stabilizer and thickening agent in a variety of foods, medications, shampoos, toothpaste, and even shoe polish.

In fact, carrageenan has become so well known—infamous, some might say—that it might color your opinion of Irish moss before we even get started. So, before we go any further, let's address the concerns surrounding this ubiquitous food additive.

The Carrageenan Controversy

When it comes to food additives, few are as hotly debated as carrageenan. And this goes for both food-grade and what's known as degraded carrageenan.

Food-grade carrageenan is extracted from Irish moss and processed with alkalis, whereas degraded carrageenan is combined with acid. 

Degraded carrageenan is an inflammatory substance that's sometimes used by scientists in animal studies when testing new types of anti-inflammatory medications. Degraded carrageenan is also considered a possible human carcinogen and is not approved for use in food.

However, dozens of animal studies that have been performed since the 1960s have shown that even food-grade carrageenan may cause inflammation of the digestive tract, ulcerations, and even cancer.

What's more, some studies have indicated that food-grade carrageenan may convert into degraded carrageenan upon mixing with stomach acid. And laboratory tests have found that the vast majority of food-grade carrageenan is contaminated with degraded carrageenan.

In 1972, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even considered putting restrictions on the use of carrageenan, but no action was ever undertaken and carrageenan continues to be found in a wide variety of foods, including products that have been certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

So why is carrageenan still on the market?

Interestingly, the food additive is considered so potentially toxic that it's been deemed unethical to test it on humans—which is more than a little ironic when you consider that millions of people eat it in their food every day.

However, many of the problems attributed to carrageenan are no doubt due to the fact that it's a highly processed extract, not a whole food. This is a problem that's frequently seen when a single compound is removed from a whole food and processed into something entirely different—take high-fructose corn syrup, for example.

However, as you'll see, Irish moss is an entirely different animal.

Irish Moss: Nutrition Facts

Like most sea vegetables, Irish moss is chock-full of nutrients. For example, a half cup of Irish moss contains:

3% of the RDA of protein 7% of the RDA of calcium
5% of the RDA of fiber  49% of the RDA of iron
5% of the RDA of vitamin C 36% of the RDA of magnesium
4% of the RDA of vitamin E  16% of the RDA of phosphorus
6% of the RDA of vitamin K 13% of the RDA of zinc
27% of the RDA of riboflavin  7% of the RDA of copper
46% of the RDA of folate 18% of the RDA of manganese

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Because Irish moss contains a whopping 92 minerals and trace minerals—almost every single mineral the body needs!

Irish moss is also a good source of eight of the nine essential amino acids, as well as taurine—an important amino acid often lacking in vegetarian and vegan diets. 

In addition, like other types of seaweed, Irish moss is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids.

What's more, Irish moss is full of phytonutrients—beneficial plant chemicals that possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties that help reduce the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. 

Health Benefits of Irish Moss

Irish moss has been used by cultures all over the world for generations to treat a range of ailments (and some things we wouldn't exactly consider ailments). 

In countries as diverse as Scotland, Ireland, and Venezuela, the sea moss is boiled with milk and used in the treatment of sore throats and chest congestion.

And in Tobago, Jamaica, and Trinidad, the same method is used to create a drink that's believed to act as a powerful aphrodisiac.

It's also thought to strengthen the immune system and connective tissue and help prevent cancer, digestive problems, and bladder infections. 

While the various vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals in Irish moss go a long way toward explaining these purported benefits, there's no denying that many of its beneficial effects on the skin and digestive tract are a direct result of its various polysaccharides.

The Mucilaginous Polysaccharides

The special carbohydrates contained in Irish moss—and this includes carrageenan as well as a substance called algin—make up such a high concentration of this red algae species that it becomes gelatinous when soaked in water and can swell to 100 times its normal weight.

As you might imagine, the ability to absorb so much water means that eating Irish moss can help you feel fuller longer, which may be useful in helping you reach your weight-loss goals. 

What's more, the polysaccharides in Irish moss contribute to its natural demulcent qualities. In fact, Irish moss is often included in cosmetics as a moisturizer and skin soothing agent and is even used in the treatment of skin conditions, including psoriasis, dermatitis, and sunburns.

In addition, algin, in particular, may have a role to play in detoxing the body of potentially dangerous heavy metals, with at least a few studies suggesting it may bind with certain heavy metals, including barium and cadmium, and help escort them from the body.

Digestive Health

While the polysaccharides (and fiber) may have a soothing effect on your GI tract, there's also evidence to suggest that eating Irish moss may support your digestive system in other ways.

For example, a rodent study in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that Irish moss acts as a prebiotic, encouraging the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and improving intestinal and immune health.

Thyroid Health

One thing all sea vegetables tend to have in common is high levels of iodine. And Irish moss is no different. Without sufficient levels of this trace mineral, the thyroid is unable to produce the hormones that keep our metabolism regulated and our heart, brain, muscles, and bones strong.

But beyond iodine, Irish moss also contains diiodotyrosine—a thyroid hormone precursor—as well as the thyroid hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4).

Brain Health

There's preliminary evidence to suggest that supplementing with Irish moss may even protect the brain from certain neurodegenerative diseases.

In a study published in the journal Marine Drugs, researchers found that worms supplemented with an extract of Irish moss displayed decreased accumulation of a type of protein associated with the development of both Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. In addition, the extract also appeared to protect neurons from degeneration. 

Both of these findings were felt to be at least partially attributable to the ability of Irish moss to protect the body from the harmful effects of oxidative stress.

Heart Health

Interestingly, studies suggest that Irish moss may possess properties that could make it a potentially potent anticoagulant. For example, a recent study published in the journal Natural Product Research found that extracts of the sea moss exhibited anticoagulant activity that was a mere 5 times less powerful than Lovenox—a medication widely used in the prevention of pulmonary embolism (PE) and deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

How Do You Use Irish Moss?

Irish moss can be purchased online or in specialty stores in its whole form or as bulk powder or capsules.

While downing a few capsules may be the easiest way to get your Irish moss, many people—especially vegans and raw food enthusiasts—prefer incorporating the whole plant into their favorite recipes. 

If this sounds like you, you'll be pleased to know that getting Irish moss ready for your favorite smoothies, soups, puddings, pies, nut milks, or vegan cheese is really quite simple.

All you have to do is rinse it with water and soak it in a large bowl (remember, it really expands!) overnight. Then simply eat as is or blend it with extra water until the desired consistency is reached and store in the refrigerator for up to a week. That's it!

When making your own Irish moss gel, keep in mind that it will retain the typical seaweed flavor. However, most people find the taste mild enough to easily disguise in a recipe. Plus, you can always decrease the taste even more by straining and rinsing several times during the soaking process.

But once you start making your own moss gel, we think you'll probably find yourself adding it to just about everything—even your own homemade skin and hair care products!

Vegan Sea Moss Drink

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