Away From the Bench

The world outside of the lab

Marshmallow Fluff

I got an email forward from my mother-in-law a few months ago that had several little tricks or tidbits of knowledge that can be useful, such as “Reynolds Wrap has lock-in tabs to hold the roll in place.”  I can’t believe that I never noticed that before.  Some of the tips I had heard of previously, but some others seemed just too good to be true.

One of the tricks was, “Marshmallows can cure a sore throat. Perfect for kids who don’t like medicine.”  First of all, there is no over-the-counter medicine that can cure a sore throat.  The antibiotics that kill the Group A streptococcal bacteria causing your sore throat would do it though (and only if you have strep throat in the first place).  I’m sure they were talking about soothing a sore throat.  Even so, I would love a new trick to soothe a sore throat, especially if it involves marshmallows.  I considered how marshmallows could do such a thing.  I have heard of gargling with warm salt water, but never sugar water.  Maybe the powder on the outside of the marshmallow helps to coat the throat?  I wasn’t sure.

I didn’t really think about it until this week, when I got a cold.  My sore throat isn’t as bad as it usually is, so I thought, maybe I should stop by the store pick up some marshmallows.  That is, until my common sense came back to me and I decided to look into this a little further.  Further, as in, I Googled it.

With a simple search, I found the answer I was looking for.  Although some top hits were websites touting the wonderous marshmallow cure, the real answer was glaringly obvious.  The root of the marshmallow plant, Althaea officinalis, has been used for centuries to soothe a sore throat.  I decided this misinformation was a result of Telephone.  You know, the kids’ game when you whisper something into someone’s ear, then the sentence gets passed from person-to-person, and the words become distorted each time it gets whispered until the last person announces a sentence that makes absolutely no sense?  The problem now is, emails like this get passed around, and the Legend of the Marshmallow grows.  Other people put it on their websites and blogs as fact and eventually doctors will start prescribing marshmallows to children (I hope not).


Public domain image from Franz Eugen Köhler’s “Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen”

Now that I know I can’t make a S’more and cure my sore throat, although I bet it would do wonders on my mental health, I decided to see what this marshmallow plant can do.  The root of A. officinalis contains polysaccharides (long chains of sugars) that are sticky and viscous.  There are many types of polysaccharides present in the plant, including mucilage, pectin, and starch.  Aqueous extracts of the root contain polysaccharides that can coat the throat and stomach to protect it from irritation, which, in turn, may reduce dry coughs or gastric ulcers.  A specific pectic polysaccharide, rhamnogalacturonan, has been shown to suppress coughing in guinea pigs at high concentrations.  There is some evidence that methanol extracts from the root of the marshmallow plant contain antimicrobial activities as well.  A. officinalis inhibited growth of certain strains of bacteria that cause periodontal disease and stressed E. coli bacteria (although did not kill it).  Extracts from the flower may also increase good (HDL) cholesterol, reduce inflammation, alleviate gastric ulcers, and inhibit platelet aggregation.  Although these studies hint at reducing various ills, there are very few published studies (at least in America) that concern the marshmallow plant.

So, there you have it.  If you have some polysaccharide extract from the root of Althaea officinalis, it may reduce throat irritation and help suppress a dry cough.  If you don’t happen to have this on hand, then I recommend sucking on a lozenge.  This example just goes to show, don’t believe everything you read, even when it is intermixed with other useful information.  “Telephone” seems to have turned into “Internet”.  Instead of old wives tales or home remedies being passed orally, we have now turned to internet-doctoring ourselves for the same type of advice.  Mothers everywhere love sending forwards to their children (The perfume is ether!  Driving with no headlights on is a gang initiation!  Car-jackers put paper on your back window!) in an attempt to protect them from afar, even though most all of those scenarios have been proven untrue by Snopes.  My mother-in-law prefaced her email with, “I’ve heard of some of these, but others are a revelation, if they really work!”  If they really work, indeed.


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