The precursor to today’s sweets were actually plants. And the originals could soon be back to cure you.
Who doesn’t know the marshmallow? The sweet, semi-transparent candy that almost seems to melt in the mouth…until your teeth find the firm but soft interior to sink into.
If you want something more, marshmallows are also part of a popular camping tradition. Skewer them and stick them into the fire, and you get a crunch-caramel outer layer filled with sweet, molten liquid.
Marshmallows also feature in the famous psychological experiment on self-control. Children were made to sit in rooms, empty except for a small table, holding a marshmallow. Each child had a choice: eat the marshmallow immediately, or hold it out for 15 minutes and be rewarded with a second marshmallow. The question was: did they have enough self-control to hold out so long? But more interestingly, being able to wait for the marshmallow was correlated with positive outcomes later in life, such as academic success and physical health.
Studies aside, marshmallows don’t directly improve our physical health. Because unfortunately for our bodies, marshmallows are what the US government labels as having “minimal nutritional value”. They are, after all, made of nothing but sugar, water, and gelatin to bind it together.
But this wasn’t always the case. The origins of this treat lie in a kind of edible plant called the mallow. More specifically, we’re looking at a particular kind of mallow that grows in the marsh.
Marshmallows are considered a delicacy today–as they were 4000 years ago, when Egyptians considered them worthy only for gods and royalty. At that time, the precursor to today’s confectionery was made from a root extract of the marsh-mallow plant, mixed with nuts and honey.
The plant in question is a beautiful perennial herb, formally known as Althaea officinalis, and is native to parts of Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia. You can recognise it by its large pink flowers, and those who fancy it can grow them in the garden with good acid-free soil. It works best in full sun.
The marsh-mallow belongs to a family named Malvaceae. This term is derived from the Latin malva, a generic word for mallows, which are herbaceous plants with flexible stalks and round fruit. Incidentally, malva is the source of the common English word “mallow”. Flowers of the mallow family are usually pink and purple in colour, which is where we get another English word: mauve.
Let’s turn our attention to the generic name of our plant: Althaea. This is derived from the Greek ἄλθειν, which means: to cure.
In ancient Greece, Hippocrates used the marsh-mallow plant for healing wounds and Althaea officinalis was considered by the Greeks as their “official healer”, used also for soothing coughs and colds.
This slimy plant was also eaten by the Romans and Egyptians as a vegetable on a daily basis. Poor people in Syria ate this plant to prevent starvation, and its use in times of famine is even mentioned in the Bible!
During the Renaissance period the marsh-mallow plant was used for toothaches, stomach problems, coughs, colds and skin irritation. It was also thought to have magical properties giving psychic abilities to those that burned the plant and used it as an incense.
It is in the nature of discovery for our knowledge to keep changing. A recent follow-up study to the marshmallow self-control experiment showed that being patient about marshmallows wasn’t directly related to doing better in life. Instead, the socio-economic background of a child had an influence on how patient they would be–and, of course, on how well they would do later in life.
Does patience still pay? Maybe, maybe not–but the marshmallow experiment doesn’t prove much either way.
Today the more interesting marshmallow studies are not in psychology, but in biology. As a matter of fact, scientists are investigating traditional knowledge about the marsh-mallow–and, while they probably don’t make you psychic, there is quite a bit of truth behind the tales.
The root of the marshmallow is what most people harvest, and it contains about 25-35% mucilage. This gelatinous substance can’t be digested by humans–and that’s its super power! In fact, instead of breaking up, it literally slides down the digestive tract, soothing and healing, as it leaves the body.
Mucilage also addresses one of the most significant parts of coughs and colds: the cough reflex.
Our respiratory tracts are meant for air and nothing else. So when we accidentally inhale dust, microbes, or other irritants, it triggers receptors in our throat that make us cough them out.
However, excessive and inappropriate coughing can be a primary symptom of many airway diseases such as asthma, respiratory tract infection, and lung cancer. From an evolutionary perspective, many viruses and bacteria “benefit” from this excessive coughing because, by causing their host to cough them out, they have an easy exit to get out and spread to other people.
There is a traditional cure for this: take marsh-mallow powder, which is a combination of different parts of the plant. This can be mixed with water or juice to create a quick drink.
Moreover, if you’re less in a hurry, the mixture can be covered and left to steep overnight at room temperature. As it sits, the mucilage from the marsh-mallow creates a thick, slippery liquid that works well to soothe the throat and mouth.
Another thing you need to know is that easy modern-day marsh-mallow recipes include using dried root as a loose-leaf tea. This can be sipped right away, or you can combine it with coconut oil to make a skin salve, to be applied directly to soothe the skin.
Let's see now why marsh-mallow is important for modern pharmacology.
Today, instead of marsh-mallow powder, people use a type of drug known as antitussives to regulate their coughing. These drugs reduce the sensitivity of cough receptors. Many of these antitussives are opioid based: they dull the senses in a way similar to opium, though on a smaller scale.
Unfortunately, many of these drugs come with side-effects like thicker mucous, unwanted phlegm, low blood pressure, and constipation. What’s worse, if you use opioids for too long, there’s the risk of addiction.
That’s why scientists are looking for plant-based alternatives, such as a kind of bunched-up sugar compound found in plants known as plant polysaccharides.
One study took purified polysaccharides of the burdock, peach tree, and marsh-mallow, testing them on cats to check their antitussive activity. All of them seemed to reduce the cough, and in fact performed better than the common non-narcotic drug dropropizine.
The best-performing plant of the three? You guessed it: the marsh-mallow.
The marsh-mallow is good for more than just coughs. Aqueous extracts of the marsh-mallow root have been shown, at least in a test-tube, to stimulate phagocytosis—which is when white blood cells attack and swallow foreign intruders in the body.
A 2019 study observed scopoletin, a marsh-mallow root extract, working effectively against an animal model of multiple sclerosis—the dreaded disease that affects the brain and central nervous system. It does this by regulating the body’s NF-κB transcription factor. NF-κB regulates various biological functions but also, for those suffering from multiple sclerosis, induces inflammation. This inflammation can be counteracted with scopoletin, from the marsh-mallow.
Another polysaccharide from the marsh-mallow plant is pectin, found in the walls of the plant’s cells and a major part of dietary fibre. Scientists are interested in pectin because it has a wide range of biological properties, including regulating cholesterol levels by controlling its absorption. More relevant, though, is that it can activate the immune function of macrophages—cells that wander through our bloodstream swallowing up foreign bacteria. At the same time, pectin also regulates cytokines, which are a kind of a messaging system across various parts of the immune system.
Researchers have not yet thoroughly investigated the effects of marsh-mallow root in humans. Most of the research to date has involved animal studies or very small-scale human studies, so more studies are necessary to confirm how effective the root is in humans.
But, based on its history of use, the marsh-mallow plant is a well-established system of traditional medicine for relieving symptoms of coughing and supporting the immune system, while also reducing intestinal inflammation.
I guess, if you’re down with a cold and have to stay at home, a nice hot cup of marsh-mallow tea…wouldn’t be a bad idea.