Agar Agar Powder: A Gelling Agent From the Sea

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Agar agar powder is often referred to simply as agar or agar powder. Another name for it is kanten, which is the name used for it in Japan. Legend has it that agar agar powder was discovered by an innkeeper in 17th century Japan who found that some discarded seaweed soup had gelled after being disposed of outdoors on a winter night. Over the centuries since its discovery, agar agar would become a popular ingredient in Asian food. Even though it was discovered in Japan, the name agar agar is Malaysian in origin and means jelly. It may have reached Malaysia via the Dutch as they traded with Japan and maintained an outpost in Malaysia for almost two centuries.

The seaweed used to make agar agar powder is called Gelidium corneum requires turbulent water and rocky seabeds to grow. It cannot be cultivated and must be harvested wild. Much of the harvesting is done by divers, though it is sometimes harvested when it washes ashore.

Presently, there is a global shortage of the Gelidium corneum seaweed. Agar agar powder is produced in Europe and Africa as well as in Asia. The main producers are Portugal and Spain along with Morocco and Japan.

Agar agar powder flavor profile

Along with being odorless and colorless, pure agar agar powder should also be tasteless.

Health benefits of agar agar powder

Agar agar powder’s health benefits come from nutrients like:

  • Minerals: Agar agar powder is a good source of calcium and iron. It contains other minerals as well, such as zinc and potassium. Those are present in smaller amounts.
  • Vitamins: Small amounts of vitamin E and vitamin K are present in agar agar powder. It is richest in folate, which is also known as vitamin B9.
  • Fiber: Agar Agar powder contains a significant amount of soluble dietary fiber.

Because of the nutrients above in addition to other properties, you can use agar agar powder as a treatment or preventive measure for conditions like:

  • Obesity: Agar agar powder is a low-calorie food that promotes a feeling of fullness due to its fiber content. The ability makes it a good dietary addition for anyone seeking to lose weight.
  • Loss of bone density: Our bones lose density as we age, leading to conditions like osteopenia and osteoporosis. The calcium in agar agar powder can help to slow the loss of bone mass.
  • Constipation: The high fiber in agar agar powder means that it can help stool to move more easily by virtue of the bulk it adds.

Common uses

Agar is a gelling agent, which means that it can function as a gelatin substitute. Common uses for agar agar powder include as an additive to a range of sweets with gelatinous textures that are popular in Asia. It has savory applications as well and may be used to make the famous bird’s nest soup from China as well as to make noodles for Chinese salads that may feature chicken or other meats. It is added to a Mauritian beverage called alouda glace that may also feature other unusual ingredients like basil seeds. In Europe and North America, it is used as a thickener in puddings and ice cream along with nougat and other candy fillings. In the US, it is often added to processed cheese.