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Gizmodo: From Ice Cream to Toothpaste: Seaweed’s Hidden Uses

Don’t call it a comeback, seaweed’s been here for years

Seaweed: The Incredible Edible Algae We Use for Way More Than Sushi

The humble seaweed may best be known for its ability to encase morsels of sticky rice and raw fish (not to mention spa-goers) but this plant-like organism has slowly worked its way into an impressive variety of human industries over the past 15 centuries. Now one can find

seaweed, or at least one of its many prized extracts, in everything from toothpaste to wound dressings.

The term “seaweed” is a misnomer as the stuff we call seaweed is not a weed–in fact, it’s not even a plant. Seaweed is actually one of three (occasionally four) broad groups of multicellular, marine algae. These ancient species are commonly sorted according to a 19th century taxonomy based on their color: red, green, brown, and blue-green…

Seaweed has been a staple crop in east Asia for more than 2500 years. The earliest recorded references of seaweed exploitation date back to 6th century BC when Sze Teu wrote, “Some algae are a delicacy fit for the most honoured guests, even for the King himself.” By the 8th Century AD, a half dozen varieties of seaweed had made their way to Japan and, today, the island nation cultivates 21 separate species. The three most common of which are Nori (used to wrap sushi), Kombu (a ubiquitous soup stock ingredient), and Wakame (used largely in soups and salads)…

During the latter half of the 17th Century, seaweed made an important transition from product to precursor when Europeans–likely first in France and then spreading across the channel to the British Isles–discovered that burning seaweed produced an extremely alkaline ash consisting of soda and potash, two chemicals widely used in the day’s glassware and glazing industries…

By the start of the Industrial Revolution, iodine and alkaline extractions were old hat as the discovery of three molecules known as hydrocolloids–agar, alginate and carrageenan–proved to be of even more value. Derived from red and brown algae species (first accomplished in Japan, 1658 then again in the UK around the 19th century), these gooey, water-soluble molecules have the ability to thickening liquid–add just a little and you get a motor-oil consistency, add a bit more and its jiggle will put a bowl of Jell-O to shame.

Read more from the source: Gizmodo