Agar, aka agar-agar or agar gum, is a common additive in the food industry used for its various properties—namely, as a thickener or stabilizer. Because it’s so common, a lot of vegans encounter the ingredient when scanning food labels and want to know if it’s suitable for 100% plant-based eaters.
Is it vegan? Yes, agar agar is 100% vegan-friendly. It’s simply a mix of carbohydrates that’ve been extracted from seaweed, specifically Red Sea algae.1
Why the silly name? Well, keep in mind that the IUPAC systematic names for the compound are “alpha-D-galactopyranosyl” and “3,6-anhydro-alpha-Lglactopyranosyl”.2
I’m fine with agar agar.
BTW, the substance is also known by Kanten, it’s Japanese name.1
There’s also furcellaran aka Danish agar which is a sulfated polysaccharide (complex carb) of D-galactose (a simple sugar). It’s also vegan-friendly, seaweed-derived and is used for gelling, especially in food products such as jams and jellies.2
Anyway, I get asked about agar agar from time to time. Any time you encounter a new strange-sounding additive, you have to wonder whether or not the ingredient is plant or animal-derived, or if it’s one of those pesky ingredients that can be derived in both vegan and non-vegan ways.
So, to ease minds, we’ll go over the various ways in which agar agar is used in the food industry.
Why Agar Agar Is Considered Vegan
It’s Extracted from Plant Matter
Unlike some substances, such as mono- and diglycerides, which can be vegan if derived from x but non-vegan, if synthesized from y, agar agar is always 100% plant-based.
That’s because it’s always extracted from seaweed, instead of synthesized chemically from precursors.
The carbohydrate-based substance has no flavor, color, or odor so it’s useful as an all-natural culinary ingredient.1
It’s Used as a Gelatin Replacement
Another thing that adds to the vegan chops of agar agar, is that the ingredient is a popular gelatin substitute. Gelatin is a common ingredient in processed food products because it contributes a chewy texture, and helps aerate confections, etc.
The problem with gelatin is that it derives from lean tissue such as collagen—thus, it’s always of animal origin.
Agar agar does have slightly different properties than gelatin—for example, it sets a bit more firmly, so it’s less creamy and jiggly—but it’s close enough to make it a favorite ingredient for substituting gelatin in otherwise non-vegan food products.3
Agar Agar Is a Vegan-Friendly Egg Replacement
Gums also make for good binders. When baking, it’s nice to have a binder—something to hold ingredients together. A lot of baked goods call for egg because the albumen provides a source of protein to mix with the ingredients, forming a network, at which point the proteins solidify when baked which contributes to structural integrity.
Fortunately for vegans, vegetable gums like agar are “water-loving” meaning that they can soak up a bunch of water creating a nice gel-like mixture similar to egg whites. Though made up of carbohydrates, and not proteins, the gel mixture still forms a nice network for binding ingredients.
While most gums are plant-derived, some are produced from a bacterium.4
Gels like cellulose gum and agar agar can bind as much as 100 times their own weight in water which helps manufacturers achieve a desirable texture, appearance, and stability in processed food products.5
Agar Agar Is a Vegan-Friendly Thickener and Stabilizer
Agar is a vegetable gum, a category of gums that belong to a group of polysaccharides (complex carbs) known as hydrocolloids.
This group of carbs and gum fibers are used in the food manufacturing industry to thicken/increase viscosity, stabilize, gel, and/or emulsify various processed foods.
Emulsification is the property of helping ingredients stay nice and mixed/dispersed in a homogenous mixture.6
These gums provide body, texture, and improve mouthfeel which makes them useful in low-fat foods to help keep them nice and creamy.
Agar Agar in Non-Vegan Foods
Just because a substance is vegan in itself, doesn’t mean that every application of the ingredient will be suitable for vegan consumption.
Because the substance is a useful gelling agent and helps suspend particulates, it’s quite helpful in a number of non-vegan food products.
For example, because it helps manage melting point, gums like agar agar are often used in dairy products like yogurt and ice cream, as well as bakery glazes, confections, and icings—all of which can range quite a bit in their vegan friendliness.2
One of the most common places you’ll find agar agar and similar vegetable gums is in the production of commercial ice creams—vegan and non-vegan alike.
Gums are used in a lot of frozen products because they help control the growth of crystals, contribute to texture, and stabilize foods throughout the freezing and thawing process.
If you’ve had homemade ice cream before, while I’m sure it was delicious, you probably noticed that it had significantly less body compared to commercial ice cream.
That’s because the commercial stuff makes use of added stabilizers at up to 0.5%.
The most common gums include sodium carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) aka cellulose gum, guar gum, carrageenan, agar agar, acacia aka gum arabic, alginate, furcellaran, locust bean, karaya, xanthan, tragacanth, and gelatin.7,8
Agar agar is common in sorbets. The final stage of prepping sorbets—the churning process—consists of placing the final mixture in a freezer that incorporates air into the fruit syrup which creates a light, airy texture.
The mixture thickens at which point the sorbet is transferred to an airtight container and then frozen for a few hours before consumption.9
To help stabilize and thicken the mixture, manufacturers use any number of animal and plant-derived substances including agar, gelatin, pectin, gum tragacanth to help improve shelf life by preventing the liquid from separating to form ice crystals.10
Other Processed Foods
Vegetable gums are used extensively as stabilizers in low-calorie salad dressings, and sweets such as confections, puddings, and whipped cream.
Don’t get your hopes up—most whip cream is far from all-natural, and most make heavy use of vegetable gums. But, they still fall far short of being vegan, as most contain dairy derivatives.
Agar agar agar is a popular ingredient in quick-drying frostings and to prevent cracking or chipping in glazed doughnuts.11
Donuts are usually non-vegan as most contain egg and milk in one form or another.
That’s it for the vegan status of agar agar. Thanks for reading.
You may also want to check out the following related articles:
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 545). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 45). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- 15 Essentials For Your Vegan Kitchen. https://www.peta.org/living/food/essentials-vegan-kitchen/
- Ensminger AH. Foods and Nutrition Encyclopedia. CRC Press, 1994.
- Dartey CK, and GR Sanderson. Use of gums in low-fat spreads. Inform 7(6):630–634, 1996.
- Sanderson GR. Gums and their use in food systems. Food Technology 50(3):81–84, 1996.
- Whistler RL, and JN BeMiller. Carbohydrate Chemistry for Food Scientists. Eagen Press, 1997.
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 540). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Deville D. Cool sorbets, intensely fl avored. Fine Cooking 16:67–71, 1996.
- Friberg B. Th e Professional Pastry Chef. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 2002.
- Ward FM. Hydrocolloid systems as fat memetics in bakery products: Icings, glazes and fillings. Cereal Foods World 42(5):386–390, 1997.