Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
A Delicious Confection and a Useful Plant
Marshmallows are sweet, puffy, and delicious confections. They are very popular as both a treat and a recipe ingredient. According to the National Confectioners Association, 90 billion pounds of marshmallows are sold each year in the United States for a total cost of around 125 million dollars.
Modern marshmallows are generally made from a mixture of sugar, corn syrup, salt, gelatin, water, and vanilla flavor. Food color is sometimes added as well. The mixture is heated to create a smooth consistency and then cooled to make the solid confection.
Originally, the confection was made from the sap of the marshmallow plant. The sap contains a substance called mucilage and is said to have medicinal benefits. When mucilage is mixed with water, it forms a gel. Candy was made by grinding the root of the marshmallow plant or by extracting the sap and then mixing the root or sap with honey.
Americans buy 90 million pounds of marshmallows each year, about the same weight as 1,286 gray whales.
— National Confectioners Association
Marshmallows have many culinary uses. Some people enjoy eating them right out of the package as they do with other candies. The decision to call marshmallows "candies" is somewhat controversial. Many people support the decision because the treats generally contain a lot of sugar.
The candies make a tasty addition to hot chocolate or cocoa. Toasting them around a campfire or roasting them in an oven are popular activities. Melted marshmallow can be used as a cake frosting.
Marshmallow is also used to make peeps. These are colored and sometimes specially flavored shapes that resemble cute animals such as chicks and bunnies. Peeps are often available at Easter but may be sold all year long. Some are made to suit other special occasions besides Easter. Snowmen may be available at Christmas, for example, and ghosts and pumpkins may be sold at Halloween.
Rice Krispie Treats
Marshmallows are often used in dessert and snack recipes. Hot, melted marshmallows form a gooey and sticky “glue” that holds ingredients such as corn flakes or other breakfast cereals together. The glue works very well in Rice Krispie treats and s'mores. Instructions for making these treats are given below.
Topping, Creme, and Fluff
Many people like to cover sweet potato casseroles with marshmallows. Marshmallow creme, which is sometimes sold as a brand known as “fluff”, is used as a topping for desserts. It's sometimes mixed with cream cheese for this purpose. It's also used in fluffernutter (fluff and peanut butter) sandwiches. In the creme or fluff, the gelatin used to make marshmallows is replaced by egg white and the water is omitted.
Artisan marshmallows are usually fresher than regular store-bought versions and have a finer, melt-in-the-mouth texture.
Some companies produce gourmet marshmallows. These have a wide variety of interesting and unusual flavors, such as pumpkin spice, banana, strawberry, coffee, chocolate, and gingerbread. They sometimes have toppings of crushed nuts or toasted coconut, or they may be dipped in chocolate.
Vegan marshmallows are also available. Most versions of the treat are unsuitable for vegetarians and vegans because gelatin is obtained from boiled animal bones and skin. Instead of gelatin, vegan marshmallows generally contain carrageenan or agar, which are gums obtained from seaweeds.
Read More From Delishably
Are Marshmallows Good for You?
The short answer is no. If you like to follow a healthy diet, marshmallows should be saved for special occasions. They usually contain a lot of sugar and sometimes a lot of fat, too. They're fun and delicious to eat as occasional treats, but if you're concerned about health you shouldn't eat them on a regular basis. The marshmallow plant might have some benefits (though WebMD says that there is insufficient evidence for any of the traditional ones at the moment), but the candy is unlikely to be more than a treat.
There is a way to make marshmallows a bit healthier if you create your own. Instead of using white, refined table sugar or corn syrup as a sweetener, an alternate substance could be used in smaller quantities. Small amounts of unrefined brown sugar, dark honey, stevia, or another sugar substitute could be used to sweeten the marshmallows, for example.
In 1927 the Girl Scout Handbook was the first documentation of the recipe combining marshmallows with chocolate and graham crackers.
— National Confectioner's Associatiom
S'mores: A Classic Marshmallow Recipe
Making a s'more is easy. The treat got its name because many people—including me—want "some more" after eating one. It's fun to make s'mores around a campfire.
- Toast one or two large marshmallows over a flame.
- Place a piece of chocolate on half a graham cracker.
- Place a freshly toasted marshmallow on top of the chocolate.
- Cover the marshmallow with the other half of the graham cracker.
- Wait a moment before eating. This allows the heat of the toasted marshmallow to melt the chocolate and creates a gooey and yummy treat.
S'Mores in the Microwave
S'mores can also be made in a microwave. In this case, use an untoasted marshmallow.
- Place a piece of chocolate on half a graham cracker and a marshmallow on top of the chocolate.
- Microwave for ten to fifteen seconds or until the marshmallow puffs up.
- Remove from the oven and place the other half of the graham cracker on top of the marshmallow.
- Allow the sandwich to cool slightly before eating.
The largest s’more ever made weighed 1,600 lbs and used 20,000 toasted marshmallows and 7,000 chocolate bars. The record was set on May 23, 2003.
— National Confectioners Association
Rice Krispie Treats or Squares
Rice Krispie treats or squares are also easy to make, though they require a bit more effort than s'mores. The squares are sweet, gooey, chewy, and delicious. Here's a recipe.
- Melt about 1/4 cup of butter or margarine in a saucepan.
- Add one package of regular-sized marshmallows (about 40 candies) and stir until melted.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in 6 cups of Rice Krispies.
- Place the mixture in a greased pan and cool.
- Cut the cooled treat into squares.
More details about making the treats are shown in the video below.
The Marshmallow Plant
Range and Habitat
The scientific name of the common marshmallow (or marsh mallow) plant is Althaea officinalis. It's a perennial flowering plant in the family Malvaceae and is native to central and southern Europe, west Asia, and the northern part of Africa. The plant has been introduced to other parts of the world, including North America. It usually grows near the sea and is often found in salty marshes.
The plant may reach a height of four feet or more. The flowers grow in a spike and each have five petals. They are often white in color but may be pale pink. The leaves are toothed or lobed and are covered with short, fine hairs on both their upper and lower surfaces. They have a velvety feel when touched.
An Edible Plant (Be Cautious)
The marshmallow plant is edible, although sometimes the mucilage content can give it an unpleasant texture. It’s very important to distinguish marshmallows from other types of mallow (and from other plants in general) if you are considering eating them. It's also important to avoid plants that are growing in polluted areas or in places treated by pesticides. As always, foragers should avoid decimating an area of a plant so that the species can reproduce and maintain its population.
A Medicinal Plant (Perhaps)
The genus name of the plant—Althaea—comes from the Greek word althein, which means "to heal"'. Marshmallow has had a reputation as a healing plant since ancient times. The roots and the leaves were used medicinally in the past and sometimes still are today.
Possible Medicinal Uses of the Plant
The marshmallow’s mucilaginous sap coats surfaces and mucous membranes in living things. It’s traditionally been used as an emollient to relieve skin inflammation and as a medicine to soothe sore throats, dry coughs, and an irritated stomach or intestinal lining. Even today, some people say that marshmallow helps them. More scientific evidence is needed before researchers agree that the plant is beneficial medicinally.
When used internally as a medicine and taken in normal doses, marshmallow is classified as "likely safe" by the WebMD website. The site says that a few precautions are necessary, however. There is some evidence that marshmallow may lower blood sugar, which could be a problem for diabetics. The plant interacts with certain medications. It may increase the amount of lithium in the body, so people taking a lithium medication need to consult their doctor before taking marshmallow. There is also a concern that the mucilage could interfere with the absorption of other medications. It shouldn’t be taken at the same time as these medicines. Health Canada (a government organization) makes the following recommendations.
Consult a health care practitioner/health care provider/health care professional/doctor/ physician if symptoms persist or worsen.
Consult a health care practitioner/health care provider/health care professional/doctor/ physician prior to use if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
— Health Canada (with respect to medicinal use of the marshmallow plant)
A Brief History of Marshmallows
In Ancient Egypt, members of the royal family are thought to have eaten marshmallow sap or roots mixed with honey and nuts. In the nineteenth century, French doctors mixed the sap with sugar and egg whites and cooked the mixture. This process created a sweet medicine for sore throats that more closely resembled our modern confections than the Ancient Egyptian creation.
Eventually, marshmallow sap was replaced with gelatin, removing any possible medicinal properties from the confection. The “marshmallow” name was retained, however. Air is whipped into modern marshmallows to increase the fluffy texture.
Today marshmallows are very popular treats and recipe ingredients. They are a fun snack and a tasty and useful addition to desserts. I suspect that people’s interest in the treat will continue for a long time to come.
- Marshmallow facts from the National Confectioners Association
- Facts about Althaea officinalis from the Royal Horticultural Society
- Marshmallow herbal medicine information from WebMD
- Facts about medicinal use of the marshmallow plant from Health Canada
© 2011 Linda Crampton