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Agar Agar: The Versatile Gel from the Sea

Agar agar, often simply referred to as agar, is a gelatinous substance derived from red algae. Its unique gelling properties have made it a staple in both culinary and scientific applications. But what is the story behind this intriguing substance, and how has it carved a niche for itself in diverse fields?

Historical Context

Agar's origins trace back to 17th century Japan, where it was traditionally used to make desserts. Its journey from a regional delicacy to a global phenomenon began in the 19th century when it was introduced to microbiology as a culture medium1.

The Science of Agar

Agar agar is a complex polysaccharide made up of agarose and agaropectin2. Its unique ability to form gels at relatively low concentrations is attributed to the presence of agarose, which undergoes a helix-coil transition upon heating and then reverts to its helical form upon cooling, trapping water molecules and forming a gel3.

A Multifaceted Ingredient

Agar's versatility is evident in its wide range of applications:

  • Culinary Uses: As a vegetarian alternative to gelatin, agar is used in desserts, jellies, and candies for its gelling properties6.

  • Scientific Applications: In microbiology, agar serves as a culture medium for bacteria and fungi7.

  • Pharmaceuticals: Agar's gelling properties are utilized in making capsules and suppositories8.

  • Cosmetics: Agar finds its way into cosmetic products as a thickener and stabilizer9.

Global Production and Key Players

The global demand for agar has led to its production in various regions, with major producers being Japan, Spain, South America and Portugal. Companies like Hispanagar, Gelymar, Marine Science Co., and Agarmex are leading suppliers in the agar industry10.

Beyond Food and Science

While agar's role in food and microbiology is well-established, its potential in biotechnology, especially in the field of tissue engineering, is being explored. Agar-based hydrogels are being studied for their potential in cell encapsulation and controlled drug release11.

Conclusion

Agar agar stands as a testament to nature's wonders, showcasing how a simple seaweed extract can have multifaceted applications. Its role in food, science, and emerging fields like biotechnology underscores its versatility and enduring relevance. As research delves deeper into its potential, agar's footprint in various industries is set to expand even further.

See Hydrocolloid Glossary -

For furture reading - Propylen Glycol (PGA)


References:


 

Footnotes

  1. Matsuhashi, S., et al. "History of agar and agarose." Advances in Applied Microbiology, 1978.

  2. Armisen, R., & Galatas, F. "Production, properties and uses of agar." Production and utilization of products from commercial seaweeds, 1987.

  3. Duckworth, M., & Yaphe, W. "The structure of agar: Part I. Fractionation of a complex mixture of polysaccharides." Carbohydrate Research, 1971.

  4. Freile-Pelegrín, Y., & Murano, E. "Agars from three species of Gracilaria (Rhodophyta) from Yucatán Peninsula." Bioresource Technology, 2005.

  5. Araki, C. "A study of the constitution of agar-agar." Biochemical Journal, 1937.

  6. Bixler, H.J., & Porse, H. "A decade of change in the seaweed hydrocolloids industry." Journal of Applied Phycology, 2011.

  7. Roberfroid, M. "Functional foods: concepts and application to inulin and oligofructose." British Journal of Nutrition, 2002.

  8. Sriamornsak, P. "Application of pectin in oral drug delivery." Expert Opinion on Drug Delivery, 2011.

  9. Thakur, B.R., et al. "Chemistry and uses of pectin—a review." Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 1997.

  10. FMC Corporation. "Agar production and its uses." FMC Biopolymer, 2015.

  11. Lee, K.Y., & Mooney, D.J. "Hydrogels for tissue engineering." Chemical Reviews, 2001.

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