Food History: Marshmallows, from Peeps to DIY Vegan Recipes


Where do our favorite dishes come from? In our ongoing series ‘Food History’ we take a look at classic dishes and their roots. 

Puffy, sweet and light, marshmallows are good all year round, from being used in hot chocolate to making s’mores over a summer camp fire. But it wasn’t always a sweet treat.

Marshmallow happens to be a plant, and what we know as a marshmallow today is actually a modern version of a medical confection made from that plant.

The physician Hippocrates in Ancient Greece was a fan of its benefits, and if you had a sore throat during the Renaissance, a marshmallow may have been prescribed. But even before that the Egyptians were mixing the plant’s sap with honey for a confection that was worthy of the gods.

Despite its noble roots, don’t think that the modern marshmallow is a puffy piece of vegetable goodness. Although its ancestors were made from Althaea officinalis, today’s marshmallow is most often a combination of sucrose and proteins derived from gelatin or egg white, a process that came to be in the early 19th century when the French decided to whip up the sap from marshmallow roots and sweeten it.

But the plant sap soon gave way to easier ingredients – whipping the plant’s roots was hard work – and egg whites or gelatin were soon used to create that chewy consistency that marshmallows are known for. Then in 1948, an American by the name of Alex Doumak came along and developed a process that allowed for the mass production of marshmallows – basically a process that manually produced the cylindrical shapes that we know today.

Thanks to their sweet taste and mass-marketing, we’ve come to love the marshmallow. Americans are said to purchase about 90 million pounds of marshmallows a year–and more than half of those are sold during the summer months, otherwise known as s’more season. (Speaking of which, the largest s’more ever created was made with 20,000 marshmallows. Chubby bunny anyone?)

Which brings us to Peeps, the brightly colored marshmallow candy, of which over 70 million are sold at Easter time every year. First made in 1920, the candy didn’t become popular until the ’50s, right after the time marshmallows started being mass produced. It’s said that in 1953 it took about 27 hours to make a Peep; today it’s only six minutes.

But as you might have guessed, our modern marshmallows have no trace of their namesake plant; you’ll often find them made with much more processed ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, delightful gelatin made from meat by-products and chemical flavorings. Yum.

Not to worry, if you love the puffy, light taste of marshmallows, they’re easy to make at home, and without a trace of gelatin. Thanks to a blog that was once devoted to the art of the vegan marshmallow, there’s a crowd-sourced recipe that many people stick to. Check it out here. You can also get creative and cut your marshmallows into various shapes like in this recipe.

Let s’more season begin!

Image: poppet with a camera

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.