Alex Steelsmith
What’s Not in a Name
Published in The Honolulu Advertiser

I’ve heard it said that some junk foods, desserts, and candies are named after plants that have health benefits. Is this true? If so, how did such a thing come about? And can you give me an example?

There are many examples: licorice candy, ginger products such as gingerbread or gingersnaps, peppermint candy, and some types of root beer (especially those made with sarsaparilla, sometimes known as sarsaparilla soda), to name a few. In their original forms, all of these probably contained significant amounts of the plants they are named after—plants known to provide a wide variety of medicinal benefits. It is highly doubtful, however, that consuming these products in their modern-day incarnations will give you those same benefits.

This came about for a variety of reasons. Typically, manufacturers made a series of alterations to the natural root or plant extract, and each alteration took the product one step further from nature. There was often a gradual transition over a period of many years, with little or no attempt to retain any of the plant’s natural health properties. The final product was a candy or junk food that may have lost most, if not all, of the plant’s medicinal qualities. In some cases, the original healthy compound is nowhere to be seen on the product’s ingredient list. Other than the name it bears, the product may have nothing in common with its plant food ancestor.

Of course, such products are often loaded with sugar and laced with other additives that can compromise your health. In many cases, as far as the chemistry of your health is concerned, they have morphed into the opposite of what their namesakes were in their original forms.

Watercolor painting by Alex Steelsmith of the real marshmallow
Perhaps the most striking example of a medicinal plant that shares its name with an extremely low-nutrition commercially processed product is marshmallow. Those spongy white entities known as “marshmallows” are among the few products to make the USDA’s “Foods of Minimal Nutritional Value” list—they may have only slightly more nutritional value than the Styrofoam packing nuggets they resemble—yet they derive their name from one of the most multifaceted healing plants found in the natural world.

Marshmallow has been used for thousands of years for a wide range of medicinal benefits. In fact, its biological name, Althaea, is derived from the Greek word for “cure.” In modern botanical medicine, marshmallow is known not only for its anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties, but also as a demulcent, an emollient, and an expectorant. In addition, some studies suggest that marshmallow may have antimicrobial activity, as well as the ability to reduce blood sugar level.

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