Irish moss is having a moment in the spotlight. Not so long ago most of our Irish moss sales were to specialty ingredients customers such as beer brewers. About 2-3 years ago, though, we saw Irish moss grow in popularity with our customers and on the internet and get endorsements from celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and others. Numerous articles have been written describing its benefits, how to use it, and where to get it. Some even call it the new super food!
When people buy Irish moss, they want to know they’re getting an authentic, high quality product from a trusted source. This can be challenging with so many choices now available. Some companies sell sea moss, some sell Irish moss, and some sell Irish sea moss. Are they all the same thing or at least equally good? It doesn’t help when one sees warnings about “fake” sea moss and contradictory information. Should you really be worried about buying fake or pool grown sea moss?
In this post we take a tour through the Irish moss landscape to highlight some of the important differences, and similarities, between the various sea moss options.
Is it moss or is it seaweed?
All sea mosses are types of red seaweed classified as Rhodophytes, one of the largest groups of algae. Most sea mosses have a similar frilly appearance and a habit of covering rocks with a carpet growth of just a few inches high…hence the name moss. They’re not at all related to true mosses, though, which are land plants in the division Bryophyta. People also sometimes wonder if sea moss is the same as kelp. Kelp is often used as a generic term loosely (but wrongly) applied to lots of different seaweeds. True kelps are actually brown seaweeds known as Phaeophytes, and it may be surprising to learn that sea mosses aren’t even distantly related to kelps even though both groups are called seaweed.
Irish moss and its sea moss cousins
Dried Irish moss Chondrus crispus
Maine Coast Sea Vegetables stock image
The original Irish moss goes by the Latin name Chondrus crispus and has a natural distribution limited to rocky North Atlantic coastlines. It prefers cooler water and is happiest between 60-70°F. It’s especially abundant in the British Isles, which of course includes Ireland, but it’s also plentiful in Canada and down into Maine, where ours is wildcrafted. Chondrus has several cousins that are often marketed as Irish moss or sea moss.
Gracilaria in the marketplace, Fiji
Derek Keats, Wikimedia Commons
Sea moss sourced from Jamaica or other tropical locales may be called Irish moss but it is not Chondrus; it most likely comes from a related genus known as Gracilaria, which has a worldwide distribution. There are about 190 Gracilaria species, but only about two dozen are used by humans as food or medicine. Gracilaria provides over 80% of the world’s agar supply, which is a gel forming polysaccharide used in foods, cosmetics, and also to make agar plates for growing bacteria in labs.
Because it requires considerable expertise to tell the many species apart; they are generally just referred to by their genus name Gracilaria. Irish immigrants settling in Jamaica adopted the native Gracilaria species as their new Irish moss, where it’s still known by that name today.
Two other tropical seaweeds are also marketed as sea moss; Kappaphycus alvarezii (elkhorn sea moss) and Eucheuma denticulatum (gusô). In the seaweed trade, Kappaphycus may be referred to as cottonii; because it was previously (and confusingly) named Eucheuma cottonii, and Eucheuma may be referred to as spinosum after its previous Latin name. Sea moss purveyors use these terms interchangeably to differentiate their products, though this often succeeds only in causing more confusion!
Both species are native to the South Pacific, but some companies import and market them as Jamaican Irish moss. Like Chondrus, they’re rich in carrageenan, and in the 1970’s they replaced Chondrus as the world’s major source of it.
What kind of sea moss is it?
It’s hard telling the various sea moss species apart once they’ve been dried and packaged, especially when the wrong species name is on the label! We’ve seen more than one product clearly of tropical origin mislabeled as Chondrus. Dr. Sebi himself may have inadvertently contributed to this confusion by referring to Jamaican sea moss as Chondrus in his presentations (many of which can be viewed online).
Chondrus and the other sea mosses have a similar, multi-branched frilly appearance, but Chondrus typically has fanlike, flattened blades whereas the tropical species tend to have slender, finger like projections on their fronds. This can make the paler varieties resemble noodles.
Color can be a helpful but not always reliable trait. Chondrus is usually reddish/purple and darker than the tropical species, which are often pale or straw colored because they are exposed to more intense sunlight while growing and during solar drying. However, powdered Chondrus can be quite pale due to the finer milling. These color variations sometimes make people think the product has been bleached when in fact it has not. Once sea moss is milled or processed into a formulation it’s practically impossible to confirm the species by eye without sending it to a lab.
Farmed sea moss vs wild
Although Gracilaria, Kappaphycus and Eucheuma can be wild-crafted, most of the world’s supply of these species comes from farms located in Southeast Asia. In fact, aquaculture accounts for over 97% of the global supply of all seaweeds…about 77 billion pounds worth! Chondrus can also be farmed, but for the most part this hasn’t been profitable and most Chondrus is wild-crafted.
Is my sea moss pool grown?
Related to the question of wild vs farmed is the issue of real vs “fake” or “pool grown” sea moss. This issue may have its roots in a series ofpresentations Dr. Sebi gave beginning in about 2011 where he warned about the dangers of pool grown moss. According to Dr. Sebi, a man in Boston was growing Irish moss taken from the ocean in tanks of brine with an artificial current.
It’s hard to verify today, but possibly Dr. Sebi was aware of publications going back to 1985 or even earlier to 1971 describing Irish moss tank culture in Nova Scotia. The authors concluded at the time that this wasn’t profitable in Canada, but potentially could be in southern locales with more sunshine and warmer temperatures.
Today, tank-based seaweed aquaculture remains largely experimental or confined to the early nursery stages prior to sea farming. Worldwide, almost all farmed seaweed is grown in the ocean, mostly in sheltered bays on lines or nets, but not in tanks or tide pools. It’s difficult for land-based tank farms to economically compete with sea-based farms that have vast acreages at their disposal and lower operational and energy costs.
The only successful Chondrus tank farm we know of is operated by Acadian Seaplants in Canada. The company grows selected strains of Chondrus that they market as Hana-Tsunomata® to high end culinary industry specialists, and not as traditional Irish or sea moss products. Of the other sea moss varieties, Gracilaria may be the most likely candidate for successful tank culture because it’s the most widely farmed sea moss species in general.
How can I tell if my sea moss has been farmed?
Various traits have been described that supposedly allow one to tell the difference between wild harvested, farmed, or pool grown sea moss. These include things such as the presence or absence of salt crystals on the fronds, shape and size of the fronds, and how much the dried sea moss expands in water. However, these traits are just as likely to be affected by the species type and how it’s been processed, and they aren’t reliable for telling the difference between wild and farmed sea moss.
The distinction between wild vs farmed may not matter much anyways when it comes to nutrition or health. Wild or farmed, seaweed absorbs minerals and other nutrients from seawater and not the substrate it’s attached to. Species type, location, and temperature are far more important. Location affects mineral and iodine content, and temperature affects lipid composition and probably other aspects as well. A study recently published in Marine Drugs showed that temperate (cold water) seaweeds contained more total lipids and heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids than tropical (warm water) seaweeds.
It’s also known that the different sea moss species contain different types and levels of bioactive polysaccharides. These carbohydrates are unique to seaweed and they show anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-cancer properties in lab studies. They may also positively affect digestion, metabolism, and even one’s mood.
Is Irish moss the same as carrageenan?
One of these bioactive polysaccharides is carrageenan. Carrageenan is a mucilaginous polysaccharide widely used to thicken foods. Carrageenan is extracted from various seaweeds through an industrial process, and there is some controversy about whether it might be harmful to some people in this form. We discussed this controversy in more detail in this blog post.
Chondrus, Kappaphycus, and Eucheuma are naturally rich in carrageenan, which comes in different forms depending on species. Kappa carrageenan predominates in Kappaphycus and is known for producing a stronger, harder gel. Eucheuma produces a softer gel known as iota carrageenan. Chondrus contains a mix of kappa carrageenan and a third form known as lambda. As mentioned earlier, Gracilaria is rich in a different polysaccharide known as agaran, which also has gelling characteristics.
Although agar and the three types of carrageenan all dissolve in hot water, only lambda carrageenan readily dissolves in cold water. This probably explains why people report different experiences when using sea moss products in beverages.
What are the benefits of sea moss?
Alfredo Bowman, known as Dr. Sebi, may be the most well-known enthusiast of the nutritional and curative properties of Irish or sea moss; and the company he founded lives on today (Bowman died in 2016). However, Dr. Sebi was hardly the first to recognize these properties.
Irish moss has been famous since at least the 1800’s, when people turned to it for food during the Irish potato famine. Even before then, though, Irish moss was often used in folk medicine. Irish immigrants brought their Irish moss tradition to Jamaica; where it remains popular today as an ingredient in drinks said to restore male vigor and libido.
Sea moss for respiratory health
Irish moss has a long tradition in the British Isles for treating respiratory ailments such as sore throats, persistent coughs, and the flu. It acts as a demulcent…a substance that relieves irritation of the mucous membranes in the throat by forming a protective film. It’s also an expectorant, and there’s evidence it even has anti-viral and antibacterial properties.
Sea Moss for Digestive health
Irish moss and other sea moss species are often recommended for treating intestinal problems such as ulcers, constipation, and diarrhea. Their high mineral and fiber content, along with bioactive polysaccharides unique to seaweed, are said to make sea moss an effective pre-biotic to promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
Sea Moss for Healthy skin
A special feature of Irish moss is its high carrageenan content, a mucilaginous polysaccharide used to thicken and gel foods. This gelling property is one of its most famous attributes; and it helps explain why Irish moss is especially good for skin care lotions and creams. Other sea mosses also contain these gelatinous carbohydrates, making them similarly useful both in food and for the skin.
Sea moss nutrition
Like most seaweeds, sea moss is highly nutritious, offering an abundance of minerals including iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium; vitamins A, E, and C; dietary fiber; high levels of iodine; as well as unique bioactive polysaccharides being studied by scientists for their health benefits. A teaspoon of Irish moss flakes or powder (about 3-4 grams) added to a smoothie contains as much iron as 50 grams of raw spinach and meets 10% of your daily magnesium requirement.
An Irish tonic
A traditional Irish recipe is to simmer about ½ cup of Irish moss with 3 cloves (optional) in about 2 cups of water, strain; add the juice of one lemon plus honey to taste, let cool and thicken, and take as needed to relieve symptoms. Some might enjoy this remedy with a dash of good Irish whiskey!
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