Final Word

Marshmallow – from laxative to party treat


Marshmallows as we know them today have one of the more interesting journeys through history, from an all-purpose medicine to sweets, a treat for bribing the kids.

With their high sugar content, too many marshmallows may cause constipation, but they started off their journey to the sweets shelves of today’s shops in ancient Egypt as, among others things, a laxative.

The sweet treat originally got its name from the marsh mallow plant of the genus Althaea officinalis, a marsh-growing native of North Africa.

In ancient Egypt the roots of the plant were boiled to create a sticky goo, used as a base ingredient of sweet confections and also to sweeten drinks, but also for medical treatments, including as a laxative and to treat a number of other ailments, such as sore throats.

All the members of the Althaea officinalis genus are regarded as having medicinal properties and derive their name from the Greek word althein, meaning to heal or cure. The plant also found its way into traditional Chinese medicine, where it is known as yàoshǔkuí and is claimed to increase the flow of breast milk and to soothe the bronchial tubes.

The versatility of the plant is illustrated by the fact that it was used traditionally, and still today, by some herbalists as a treatment for irritated mucous membranes, including use as a gargle for mouth, throat and gastric ulcers. A study on rats concluded that an extract from the flowers has potential benefits for hyperlipidemia, gastric ulcers, platelet aggregation and in the treatment of a sore throat.

To this day the root extract (halawa extract) is sometimes used as flavouring in the making of a Middle Eastern snack called halva. The flowers and young leaves can be eaten and are often added to salads or are boiled and fried.

This is, however, not where the usefulness of the plant and especially its roots end. The dried roots can be used as a toothbrush or given to teething children since it has a medicinal effect on the gums and helps ease the pain that goes with the teething process. It also has a cosmetic use in helping to soften skin. In addition, paper can be made from it, and the dried, powdered roots can used to bind the active ingredients of pills.

Lastly, glue can be produced by boiling the root to a thick syrup and an oil for making paints and varnishes can be extracted from its seeds.

Modern marshmallows

The modern name ‘marshmallows’ derives from the Old English merscmealwe name for the plant and was used in that context until the late 19th century.

The first modern marshmallows were made in the late 19th century when syrup or sugar and egg whites were added to the goo produced from the plants by French candy makers. They started off with a basic sweetened meringue – egg whites, set in gelatine, which they called pâte de guimauve – often flavoured with rose water.

There were variations of this delicatessen over the years, but the final development of the sweet we buy in plastic bags at the shop only came in 1948 when Alex Doumak developed a technique where the paste was extruded through a tube and then sliced into cylinders, giving them the characteristic shape we know so well.

Unfortunately, the contemporary commercial marshmallows available in ordinary shops no longer contain anything from the plant it got its name from. So, sadly, you would derive no relief from chewing away at a bag of marshmallows if you suffer from a bout of constipation – rather the exact opposite is likely to result.

by Piet Coetzer

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