Agar Agar (also known as agar, or kanten) is the mucilage content drawn from several seaweeds. As a herbalist, I’ve always been fascinated with mucilaginous herbs and foods. The action associated with mucilage content in an ingested herb or food is referred to as ‘demulcent’. If used topically on the skin, the action of mucilaginous herbs is referred to as ’emollient’. Emollients and demulcents are soothing, cooling, moistening and calming for body tissues they come in contact with.
This is a mechanical more so than a chemical action; mucilages are sticky, gooey, and almost mucous-like… hence the name! This consistency is what provides soothing to irritated tissues. The bit that always intrigued me during my naturopathic training was the idea that these mucilage-soothed tissues could send a kind of ‘calm and happy’ message to other mucous membranes in the body. Realistically, ingested demulcent herbs only come into contact with the digestive lining, and yet, their soothing effect can be felt in the lungs and the urinary system. No one knows for sure exactly how or why this is so, but it is possible that calmed nerve endings in in the gut-lining send a nerve-reflex ‘message’ to mucous membranes elsewhere.
In the kitchen, agar agar is used in place of gelatin. Besides having a firmer texture, not melting easily and containing no calories, agar agar has the added benefit of not being sourced from dead animals. Gelatin is made from animal bones, along with animal skin, hooves, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage all boiled together. Gelatin is found in marshmallows, jelly, some low-fat yogurts, desserts, trifles, aspic, and lollies such as gummy bears and jelly babies. It’s often used as a stabilizer, thickener, or texturizer in jams, yogurt, cream cheese, and margarine. Gelatin can also be used for the clarification of juices, such as apple juice, and of vinegar.
While researching for this blog, I was surprised to learn that gelatin is also an ingredient in products like glue, nail polish remover, crêpe paper, photographic films, photographic papers, watercolor papers and gesso, a white paint mixture used as a surface base for art canvasses and sculpture. In cosmetics, there is a non-gelling variant of gelatine called hydrolyzed collagen. But back to the fun stuff!
Let me tell you about the healing properties of agar agar. We already know that mucilaginous herbs are cooling and soothing, but from an eastern medicine perspective, agar agar has the following specific actions:
*Benefits the lungs and liver
*Reduces inflammation affecting the heart and lungs
*Improves digestion and weight loss
*Removes toxic waste from the body
*Is a good source of calcium and iron
Cautions: people with signs of coldness and/or weak digestion with loose or watery stools should use agar agar cautiously.
(These therapeutic actions sourced from ‘Healing with Whole Foods, Asian traditions and Modern Nutrition’ by Paul Pitchford)
Here are some good articles about Gelatin:
Gentle world is an excellent source for vegan education: http://gentleworld.org/gelatin/
To learn more about how gelatin is made: http://www.madehow.com/Volume-5/Gelatin.html
Articles about the mucilages and demulcents:
Vegan recipes containing agar agar
The first time I ever used agar agar was in jelly. The second time was much more exciting: chocolate cake made with avocado for my sister’s 30th birthday!