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Science & Technology

April 17, 2006
Volume 84, Number 16
p. 41

WHAT'S THAT STUFF?

Marshmallow

Gelatin has largely replaced the spongy confection's namesake, a plant-root ingredient

Rachel Petkewich

In 1984, the blockbuster movie "Ghostbusters" put a whole lot of marshmallow on the big screen. In the film, three out-of-work parapsychology professors decide to start a business to rid New York City of supernatural entities with technology they designed. A sudden surge in paranormal activity puts their services in high demand. When they confront the major enemy spirit, named Gozer, they try to keep their minds blank so as not to conjure Gozer in any material form. But a benign fictional icon pops into the head of Raymond Stantz (played by Dan Ackroyd) and materializes on the city street. To this day, fans of the movie can still quote Stantz's reasoning: "I tried to think of the most harmless thing ... something I loved from my childhood."

What materializes is Mr. Stay Puft, a skyscraper-tall marshmallow man with a goofy grin and a tiny blue sailor hat, who proceeds to topple lampposts and mailboxes with seismic, lumbering footsteps. It is a memorable manifestation of the sweet and squishy treat.

Back to reality. Winter brings minimarshmallows bobbing in hot cocoa and complementing sweet potatoes. Spring ushers in brightly colored treats shaped like chicks and bunnies. In summer, fluffy marshmallows toasted over a barbecue grill and sandwiched between chocolate and graham crackers are popular treats known as s'mores. Year round, peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwiches pop up at lunch tables.

According to the National Confectioners Association, Americans spend more than $125 million annually for upwards of 90 million lb of marshmallow. The association equates that weight to 1,286 gray whales.

Marshmallow originally was derived from the roots of Althaea officinalis, a pink-flowered mallow plant that grows wild in marshes, hence its name. In the Middle Ages, the mucilaginous sap soothed colds and sore throats. The ancient Egyptians enjoyed mallow sap with nuts, a gooey treat they reserved for gods and royalty.

In the 1800s, candymakers in France sweetened, whipped, and molded the gummy sap into a more modern marshmallow. Its unique texture appealed to many consumers. To keep up with demand, marshmallow makers developed new recipes and processes.

IMAGES COURTESY OF JUST BORN

Naked Chicks With their bottoms covered in yellow sugar, these marshmallow chicks parade toward a wind tunnel that will cover the tops of the candies in the same color.

By the early 20th century, mallow root extract was replaced by egg whites or gelatin. Both of these proteins are more readily available and have well-studied foaming properties. Today's marshmallows generally contain corn syrup, modified cornstarch, sugar, gelatin, and a lot of air. Although most marshmallow products today do not contain egg whites, this ingredient is still used to give marshmallow crème its gooey texture. Some products also have added colors or flavors, including vanilla, strawberry, and raspberry.

Miang Lim, a senior lecturer in the food science department at the University of Otago in New Zealand, collaborates with marshmallow researchers at Cadbury Confectionery Ltd., Australasia. She says gelatin forms fluffy foam that maintains its elastic and spongy qualities much longer than fresh egg whites.

As a whipping agent, gelatin binds large amounts of water into marshmallow. The moisture is key to extending the product's shelf life, explains Scott Yeager, R&D manager for Just Born, the largest manufacturer of novelty marshmallow products worldwide. These products, including marshmallow chicks, bunnies, and other shapes, stay fresh for up to 24 months.