Although a year-round treat, spring uniquely promises brightly colored marshmallows shaped like chicks and bunnies.
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.
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.
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.
Although marshmallow is a simple food, it undergoes changes due to sucrose crystallization, cross-linking of gelatin molecules, and glassy formation of sucrose and gelatin during processing, Lim says. Such changes are exploited to produce highly crystallized, “grained” marshmallow products, like those orange-colored circus peanuts that break rather than stretch.
Visit “What’s That Stuff” to read more about the chemistry of marshmallow.
Excerpted with permission, Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2006 American Chemical Society