Marshmallow from the mouse factory
Prof. Dr. Julia Bornhorst / Food Chemistry
Photo: Sebastian Jarych

Foam sugar from the mouse factory

A 100 years ago / Jahrhundertwissen interview with the food chemist Prof. Dr Julia Bornhorst

100 years ago, the traditional Aseli company in Berlin, which also calls itself the Original Berlin Mouse Factory, created the white mice made of marshmallow. What is marshmallow made of in the first place?

Bornhorst: Marshmallow is a foam sugar product. Sugar is the main ingredient, accounting for almost 75%. It also contains other ingredients such as beaten egg whites, gelling agents, flavourings and colourings. These are all ingredients that can also be found in many households. You can therefore make marshmallows yourself. The ingredients are cornflour, icing sugar, vegetable oil, gelatine, vanilla sugar, a pinch of salt, water and possibly liquid food colouring, which creates a beautiful marble pattern. There are various recipes for this.

Originally, marshmallows were made from the sap of the roots of the marshmallow (Althaea officinalis). What part of the plant is it?

Bornhorst: In the past, the sap of the marshmallow was used as a gelling agent. The name marshmallow is derived from the English name marsh mallow. Marshmallow is an erect, perennial, herbaceous plant with strong shoot axes (stems). The stems and leaves as well as the roots were used for marshmallows. Later, marshmallows were made with gum arabic, a secretion of the acacia trees. Today, for cost reasons, gelatine is mostly used as a gelling agent, but marshmallows with kosher fish gelatine or vegetable gelling agents (agar, carrageenan) are also available, as well as products that do not use gelling agents at all.

The plant marshmallow was already used for medicinal purposes before it was used as a snacking ingredient. What were these purposes?

Bornhorst: Marshmallow has mainly been used because of its property as a mucilage. It has been found that these mucilages are enveloping, soothing and alleviating. In animal experiments, the anti-inflammatory and immunostabilising effect could also be proven. In ancient times, marshmallow was considered to have healing properties against tumours and pain in the intestines. In David Hoffmann's guide to herbs and medicinal plants, the root of marshmallow can be used, for example, for digestive disorders or skin inflammations. The leaves for complaints with the lungs and the urinary tract. When used externally it is also helpful for problems with varicose veins and boils.
The Committee for Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC) of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has just published a monograph on marshmallow root. This confirms the traditional indications for various preparations, for example as an irritation-relieving medicinal product for inflammations of the mouth and throat, to reduce the urge to cough and for mild inflammations in the gastrointestinal tract.

Today, marshmallow is usually replaced by pork gelatine. Marshmallows can be melted on a stick over an open fire, sprinkled into cocoa in miniature form or eaten in chocolate form. How "un"-healthy is this sweet?

Bornhorst: When it comes to consumption, one should definitely keep in mind that the main ingredient is sugar. A high and frequent sugar intake promotes the development of overweight and obesity as well as numerous diseases associated with obesity, such as type 2 diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular diseases, and the development of caries. Thus, expert associations advise a rather low-sugar diet.

The family business Aseli (the name was derived from the first name and surname of the company founder Alfred Seliger, editor's note) still produces the foam sugar in good "Alfred tradition": according to old family recipes. Hand-cooked, hand-sprayed and hand-packed. They say about their production: "The raw mass is still cooked in traditional copper kettles. Due to the high heat conductivity, the temperature is distributed quickly and evenly, which prevents the sugar solution from burning and ensures a balanced aroma.
We only use natural colourings and no genetically modified organisms. Our products do not contain any allergens that require labelling. They are both gluten and lactose free." Yet marshmallows consist of 75% sugar. How much sugar should a person consume per day?

Bornhorst: Today there are more and more studies that prove a connection between high sugar consumption and the risk of chronic diseases. Experts from the German Nutrition Society (DGE), the German Obesity Society (DAG) and the German Diabetes Society (DDG) have established this and derived quantitative recommendations for the sugar intake of the German population. These recommendations are summarised in a consensus paper. Based on the current scientific literature, the three professional societies have advocated a maximum intake of free sugars of less than 10 % of the total energy intake. No more than 10 per cent of the daily calorie requirement of 2000 kilocalories on average should be consumed in the form of sugar, which is a maximum of 50 grams, i.e. about 10 teaspoons of free sugar.
However, data from consumption studies show that the intake of free sugars in Germany is significantly above the recommendation of less than 10 energy percent (En%), especially in younger age groups. Children and adolescents consume as much as 15 - 20 en%. In order to not exceed the intake recommendation for free sugars, the current intake would have to be reduced by at least 25 %. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has even recommended that sugar intake should not exceed 10% of daily calories. Even better is 5 %. The daily sugar requirement thus corresponds to a maximum of 25 grams per day. Accordingly, a child should not exceed about 6 teaspoons.

In August 2020, the press raise attention with the so-called "Children's Hyperglycaemia Day"; this meant that by August, children and adolescents had already consumed as much sugar as is recommended for an entire year. A large proportion of the intake of free sugar in Germany comes from sweets and sugary drinks such as fruit juices and nectars as well as soft drinks.

Of course, you cannot shut yourself off completely, but you should consume everything in moderation and keep an eye on your total sugar intake. This includes hidden sugar in particular.

The term "marshmallow" most likely comes from the white mice created in Berlin 100 years ago. Marshmallows can be eaten in various forms, they served as a reward in a psychological study of children in the 1960s, the so-called marshmallow test. They are the eponym for Android version 6 and can also be found in the form of a giant marshmallow man in the cinema film "Ghostbusters". What do you associate with this foam sugar?

Bornhorst: I associate special events with foam sugar or marshmallows. Birthdays, for example, where sweets were served for the special occasion. Personally, I tend to go for chocolate and eat marshmallows at parties when it is on the table anyway.
During my post-doc stay in the US, I also learned that you can bake a very delicious, crispy gratin of mashed sweet potatoes with a marshmallow crust. But that was also something special for Thanksgiving.

Uwe Blass (Interview on March 9, 2021)

Julia Bornhorst studied and obtained her doctorate at the Wstfälische Wilhelms University Münster. For five years, she worked at the Insitute of Nutritional Science at the University of Potsdam. She has been a professor of food chemistry at the University of Wuppertal since January 2019.

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