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Less Famous Than Fungus

October 21, 1998|CHARLES PERRY

On an elementary school playground, "algae" and "fungus" are shorthand for anything yucky. By the time the kids grow up, though, they may find they've changed their minds. They may fall in love with mushrooms and end up paying stupendous amounts for a particular subterranean fungus called the truffle.

None of the algae is as popular as these famous fungi, but we eat quite a bit of seaweed anyway, and seaweeds are just gigantic algae. We eat seaweed quite knowingly in sushi restaurants ("Yucko!" say the kids). In fact, people eat seaweed in most coastal areas around the world.

But we eat a lot more algae without realizing it. Algae derivatives are used in all sorts of processed foods for their ability to stiffen texture. You see the word "carageenan" on many an ingredient label; it's a substance derived from an Irish red seaweed which gives stability to everything from pumpkin pie to infant formula. Agar (sometimes called agar-agar), made from a Malayan seaweed, shows up in jellies, canned meats and marshmallows. And laxatives, I regret to mention.

Other algae derivatives firm up pimentos so they don't turn to mush when they're stuffed in green olives. Algae also replace the oil and eggs in no-fat mayonnaise. The most specialized use is in keeping beer foam from collapsing when it comes in contact with lipstick.

So don't call algae yucky. They've given us kissable beer.

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