At a small beach just outside the Galician port town of A Guarda, an elderly lady wearing a vest top, blue cut-offs and a floppy, white hat is collecting seaweed from amongst the rocks and piling it into large, black, plastic buckets. She carries the buckets on her head to a small yellow trailer and, when the trailer is full, she drives off on her spluttering moped to a flat, concrete area where she lays out her crop in the sun to dry.
My Spanish is very poor and she speaks no English but I attempt to ask her about the use for this seaweed.
‘Is it food?’ I mime putting it into my mouth.
‘No!’ She looks disgusted.
‘Crema.’ She rubs some on her skin.
‘You make it?’ I point to her and then the seaweed.
‘No!’ She laughs and launches into an explanation in Spanish of which I catch only the words, factory and laboratory, and the town, Porrino.
The next day I see a whole family collecting it with her. Although they seem to have separate motivations, they work happily alongside each other, chatting and joking together as well as with the other locals.
I am intrigued about the destination of this seaweed and I want to know more about the product. I type the words ‘seaweed’ and ‘Porrino’ into Google and it enlightens me. CEAMSA is a company in Porrino which manufactures carrageenan and pectin products for the food industry. The carrageenan is a food preservative and is made from the fluffy, burgundy seaweed I have seen on the rocks. It’s present in a lot of the food that we eat, such as chocolate milk and ice cream. It is also used as a thickening agent in place of gelatin, which is an animal based product. Toothpaste and hair products may also contain it.
The company additionally has a base in The Philippines and other similar companies operate out of East Africa and Indonesia. I wonder how much the people who collect the seaweed are paid in relation to how much the company makes from selling its product. According to Marinalg.org, 200,000 tons of seaweed gets harvested globally every year and it is completely natural and safe to use. However, it does make me curious as to what else might be present in the food I eat.