If you think the only seawood you eat is wrapped around your nori-maki at your favorite Japanese sushi bar, you might be intrigued to know that seawood is used or consumed every day in every household.

More than 800,000 dried metric tons of seaweed are harvested annually, mostly for food, but much of that harvest is processed into carrageenan, a starch-like powder made from Irish moss, a red algae seaweed, and other seaweeds.

The toothpaste that squeezes out in a perfect coil every morning has been thickened and smoothed with carrageenan, a marine colloid that gels, stabilizes, emulsifies and thickens. It does for many products what the egg does for mayonnaise. It alters the surface properties of other ingredients, making them combine more easily. It's the stuff that makes our everyday products less goopy, firmer, thicker -- easier to look at and swallow. Look down the list of ingredients on many of the products in your kitchen and you'll be surprised to see how often it appears.

It is carrageenan that keeps the cream from separating in canned infant formulas, keeps the chocolate from sinking to the bottom in chocolate milk, stabilizes the whip in instant whipping creams, stiffens jellies and pudding and provides thickening for instant breakfasts, frosted shakes, cocoa mixes, chocolate syrup, salad dressing and shampoos. It even keeps the dog food moist.

Harvested all over the world, Irish moss is the basis of a growing cottage industry of "mossers" using skiffs and rakes off the coast of Maine and Canada. It's a second job for off-season lobstermen, college kids on vacation and shore families. They rake in the moss and sell it to marine colloid buyers waiting on the docks.

The world's largest processor is a U.S. corporation, the FMC Marine Colloids division, which turns seawood into a fine white powder at Rockland, Maine. FMC not only buys Irish moss but also expects to soon have its own Irish moss "farm" near Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Seaweed research is a frontier with possibilities that appear limitless. Experimentation under way includes growing marine algae as a crop to feed farmed shrimp and salmon under controlled conditions. Another project is growing algae in wastewater treatment ponds at the Industrial Chemical Group's plant in Green River, Wyo.

According to FMC, tests are showing that algae added to the water thrives, consuming wastes to solve a problem while growing a commerically valuable algae crop that Marine Colloids could make into other products.

Carrageenan someday may be used to solidify water-based explosives, aid in plating metal, help seeds retain moisture under drought conditions and improve oil drilling muds. It also has lubricating properties that may move coal in slurry pipelines. The seaweed possibilities in biomedical research involve agarose, another marine colloid being used to perform many diagnostic and clinical tests in cancer research and heart attack cases.