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Soothes sore throats, relieves coughs

Floating in a steaming cup of cocoa or skewered on a sharp stick, marshmallows may seem like little more than glorified cream puffs — and rubbery ones at that. It's hard to believe that the sugary confections have a medicinal history.

Actually, our modern marshmallows no longer contain the herb for which they were named. Marshmallow, the herb, comes from a tall plant with a long root that grows (no surprise) in marshes. Nineteeth-century doctors cooked juice from the marshmallow plant's roots with egg whites and sugar and whipped them into a foamy meringue that later hardened, creating a medicinal candy used to soothe children's sore throats. This medicine proved popular with adults as well as children, mostly as a candy. Eventually, advanced manufacturing processes and improved texturing agents eliminated the need for the gooey root juice altogether.

The Power's in the Slide

Centuries before marshmallow was ever used to make candy, physicians were prescribing preparations made from marshmallow roots, flowers and leaves for coughs and sore throats. In fact, the scientific name for marshmallow is Althaea officinalis, from the Greek word althaea, meaning "to heal."

As it turns out, the leaves, light pink flowers and roots of the marshmallow plant all contain a thick, gooey substance called mucilage. "The mucilage can soothe irritation in your throat and help you stop coughing," says Heinz Rosler, Ph.D., associate professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in Baltimore. In fact, when pitted against two other remedies in an Eastern European study of cough suppressants, marshmallow outperformed both. Teas containing marshmallow are commonly sold in Germany for this purpose, says Dr. Rosler.

Putting the herb to work

Although the herb is not as widely available here, you can sometimes purchase marshmallow teas at health food stores. You can also make a tea by boiling 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of crushed root per cup of water for 10 to 15 minutes.

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