By Rachael Link, MS, RD
From soft, squishy marshmallows to sweet, fruit-filled gummy snacks, gelatin is pretty abundant throughout the food supply, which can make it challenging if you’re on a vegan diet or looking to limit your consumption of animal products. Enter agar agar, a plant-based food thickener that’s both versatile and packed with health benefits.
Not only is it rich in many important micronutrients, but some evidence shows that agar agar can help support regularity, promote satiety and enhance weight loss, giving you plenty of reasons to give this natural thickening agent a shot.
What Is Agar Agar?
Agar agar, also known simply as agar, is a gel-like substance derived from red algae. It’s found in powder, flake and bar form and can be mixed with liquid and simmered to act as a thickening agent for desserts, soups and sauces alike.
It’s a popular alternative to gelatin because it’s plant-based, flavorless and suitable for most diets. It also has a higher melting point than gelatin, making it ideal for use as a solid medium in the laboratory.
In addition to its culinary benefits, agar agar is loaded with nutritional benefits as well. It’s low in calories but high in fiber, manganese, magnesium, folate and iron. It may also help improve digestive health, aid in weight loss and keep your blood sugar stable.
Is It Safe? Benefits of Agar Agar
- Promotes Digestive Health
- Supports Satiety and Weight Loss
- Strengthens Bones
- Helps Prevent Anemia
- May Regulate Blood Sugar
- Effective Vegan Gelatin Substitute
1. Promotes Digestive Health
Agar agar is a great source of fiber, which moves through your body undigested, acting as a natural laxative to add bulk to the stool and get things moving.
Increasing your fiber intake is one of the most effective ways to relieve constipation and support regularity. One analysis compiled the results of five studies and concluded that dietary fiber was able to increase stool frequency in people with constipation. (1)
2. Supports Satiety and Weight Loss
In addition to promoting regularity and digestive health, some studies have also found that the high fiber content of agar agar could be beneficial when it comes to keeping your waistline in check. This is because fiber moves slowly through the digestive tract, promoting satiety and reducing appetite.
One small study out of the Tokyo Metropolitan Komagome Hospital’s Department of Internal Medicine in Japan found that agar was able to slow gastric emptying, which can help keep you feeling fuller for longer. (3) Similarly, another study published in Diabetes, Obesity & Metabolism showed that supplementing with agar for 12 weeks resulted in significant weight loss in 76 obese participants compared to a control group. (4)
3. Strengthens Bones
Issues like osteopenia and osteoporosis become increasingly common as you get older and begin to lose bone density. As these conditions progress, they can result in changes in stature as well as an increased risk of fractures.
Agar is rich in several important nutrients that play a role in bone health. It’s high in calcium, in particular, which provides strength to the tissues in your bones and teeth. (5) Agar is also packed with manganese, a nutrient that’s central to the formation of bones. A deficiency in this important mineral can alter bone metabolism and even decrease bone synthesis. (6)
4. Helps Prevent Anemia
Anemia is a condition that occurs when your body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells, resulting in anemia symptoms like fatigue, dizziness and shortness of breath. There are many potential causes of anemia, ranging from blood loss to chronic disease, but a deficiency in important nutrients like iron is one of the most common underlying causes of anemia.
One ounce of agar agar supplies a whopping 33 percent of the iron you need in the entire day, which can help promote the production of healthy red blood cells and reduce the risk of anemia. Be sure to pair your agar with other iron-rich foods as well as vitamin C from fruits or vegetables to enhance the absorption of iron.
5. May Regulate Blood Sugar
Agar agar is a great source of fiber, with 2.2 grams — or up to 9 percent of the daily recommended amount for some people — in just one ounce. Fiber slows the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream, which can help keep blood sugar stable and prevent sudden spikes and crashes in sugar levels.
However, studies on the effect of agar agar on blood sugar have turned up mixed results. The study out of Japan mentioned above on the effects of agar and pectin on gastric emptying, for example, actually found that agar had no impact on blood sugar levels after eating a meal. More research is needed to determine how beneficial agar agar may be in maintaining normal blood sugar compared to other fiber-rich foods.
6. Effective Vegan Gelatin Substitute
Gelatin is widely used as a thickening agent in a variety of desserts, such as pudding, ice cream, yogurt and fruit gelatin, as well as other products like cosmetics and vitamin capsules. It’s also found in supplement form and is associated with a number of benefits, from reducing joint pain to reversing skin aging. (7, 8)
However, gelatin is made by boiling the skin, bones and tissues of animals, which makes it unsuitable for those on a vegan or vegetarian diet. Agar agar, on the other hand, is derived from red seaweed and can be swapped into recipes in place of gelatin as a vegan alternative to help thicken foods. In fact, agar can be used to make everything from vegan gummies to puddings and panna cotta. If using agar powder, simply switch out an equal amount of gelatin for agar agar in your favorite recipes.
Agar Agar Risks
Agar agar is high in nutrients, plant-based and generally considered a safe addition to the diet that can be consumed with minimal risk of side effects. However, there are some risks of agar that should be considered as well.
It’s important to consume agar agar with plenty of liquids. When it’s mixed with water, it swells up and becomes gelatinous. If it’s not mixed with enough water, it can block the esophagus and lead to swallowing difficulties or even worsen bowel obstructions. (9) For this reason, if you have dysphagia or have an obstructed bowel, you should stay on the safe side and consult with your doctor before taking agar.
Additionally, some studies have suggested that certain types of fiber, such as agar, may increase the risk of developing tumors in the colon, although current research is limited. While more studies are needed to evaluate the potential effects of agar on tumor growth, it’s best to talk to a health care practitioner before consuming agar if you have a history of colon cancer. (10)
Agar Agar Nutrition
Agar agar contains a good chunk of fiber, plus a range of micronutrients, including manganese, magnesium, folate and iron.
One ounce of agar powder contains approximately: (11)
- 85.7 calories
- 22.6 grams carbohydrates
- 1.7 grams protein
- 0.1 gram fat
- 2.2 grams dietary fiber
- 1.2 milligrams manganese (60 percent DV)
- 216 milligrams magnesium (54 percent DV)
- 162 micrograms folate (41 percent DV)
- 6 milligrams iron (33 percent DV)
- 175 milligrams calcium (18 percent DV)
- 1.6 milligrams zinc (11 percent DV)
- 6.8 micrograms vitamin K (9 percent DV)
- 315 milligrams potassium (9 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram copper (9 percent DV)
- 0.8 milligram pantothenic acid (8 percent DV)
- 1.4 milligrams vitamin E (7 percent DV)
In addition to the nutrients listed above, agar agar also contains a small amount of vitamin B6, riboflavin and selenium.
Agar Agar Uses
Agar agar is available in flake, powder or bar form depending on your preference. Agar agar powder is the easiest to use; it can be substituted for gelatin using a 1:1 ratio and then mixed with liquid to form a gel. Agar flakes are less concentrated than the powder and can be ground up in a spice or coffee grinder and then dissolved into liquid. Meanwhile, agar bars are made up of freeze-dried agar and can be broken or ground up to aid in dissolving it faster.
When mixing with liquid, use a whisk to help blend it. Then bring the mixture to a boil and allow it to simmer five to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the agar is completely dissolved. It should then be poured into a container or mold and set aside at room temperature. As a rule of thumb, for each cup of liquid, you should use about one teaspoon of agar powder, one tablespoon of agar flakes or half of an agar bar.
Thanks to its high fiber content and gelling properties, agar is often used as a natural remedy to relieve constipation. It’s also sometimes used as an appetite suppressant to aid in weight loss.
Agar agar can also be used in cooking. Much like other products, such as guar gum and locust bean gum, agar acts as a thickening agent in dishes and desserts like jellies and custards. It can also help improve the texture of soups, sauces and even ice cream.
Where to Find Agar Agar
Wondering where to buy agar agar? It’s available at many health food stores as well as Indian and Asian specialty shops. Look in the baking section near other natural thickeners like xanthan gum and gellan gum. You can also purchase it through many online retailers in either powder, flake or bar form.
If you’re having difficulty finding it, make sure you look for it under its other names. It’s also sometimes found labeled as “kanten,” “Japanese gelatin” or “China grass.”
Agar Agar Recipes
Agar agar makes a great addition to vegan recipes and desserts like puddings and gummies. Need some inspiration to get you started? Here are a few agar agar powder recipe ideas that you can try at home:
Interestingly enough, agar agar is believed to have been invented entirely by accident in 1658. As the story goes, Japanese innkeeper Mino Tarōzaemon threw out some extra seaweed soup and found that it had gelled up the next morning after being out all night in the cold.
Although it originates in Japan, it’s name actually stems from the Malay word for Gelidium, which is the type of red algae from which agar agar is produced.
Because of its higher melting point, agar agar quickly replaced gelatin as the most popular medium used to grow microbes in laboratories during the 19th century.
With the growing demand for agar, agar production quickly boomed. Japan was originally responsible for the majority of agar production, but the industry expanded into other areas, such as the United States, Russia, Mexico and India, during World War II.
In recent years, agar agar has gained popularity for its health-promoting properties and usefulness as a vegan substitute for gelatin. It is now widely used in baked goods, desserts, jellied products and even canned goods. (12)
Agar agar is safe for most people but has been linked to some mild adverse side effects like diarrhea or abdominal pain. Although uncommon, it is also possible to be allergic to agar agar or red seaweed. If you experience food allergy symptoms like itching, swelling or nausea after eating agar agar, discontinue use immediately and talk to your doctor.
You should also make sure to pair agar with plenty of water to prevent esophageal or intestinal blockages. If you have difficulty swallowing or a bowel obstruction, it’s best to consult with a health care practitioner before taking agar agar.
Additionally, because there is some concern that agar may increase the risk of developing tumors in the colon, you should limit your use if you have a history of colon cancer and address any concerns with your doctor.
- Agar agar is a gel-like substance derived from red algae that is a popular vegan alternative to gelatin as a thickening agent.
- It’s commonly used to enhance the texture of recipes like puddings, ice creams, jellies, gummies, soups and sauces.
- In addition to containing plenty of fiber, agar agar is also high in micronutrients like manganese, magnesium, folate and iron.
- Thanks to its rich nutrient profile, agar agar has been associated with numerous health benefits. Potential agar agar benefits include improved digestive health, reduced appetite and better blood sugar. It also provides several nutrients that are important in preventing anemia and supporting bone health.
- Although generally safe, it’s important to mix it with plenty of liquids to avoid negative side effects. Those with a bowel obstruction, difficulty swallowing or a history of colon cancer should discuss with their doctors before taking agar.
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