As a food additive, agar-agar (or just agar) is used as a gelling agent. It is also used to thicken and/or stabilize various foods.
Agar is used to form dental impressions. It is also the preferred medium used to grow cultures in Petrie dishes.
Also known by its Japanese name, kanten, agar-agar is widely used in Asian desserts. It is a gelling agent derived from a red algae called Gracilaria. Because it is made from algae, it can be vegetarian substitute for gelatin.
Unlike gelatin which requires refrigeration to set, agar-agar will set at room temperature after about an hour. However, you will still want to store dishes gelled with agar agar in the fridge since it is a high protein food.
Containing about 80% fiber, agar-agar can act a mild laxative.
Agar-agar is traditionally produced by cooking and pressing the algae and then naturally freeze-drying the residue to form bars which are then powdered or flaked for easier packageing and transport.
Common Foods Containing Agar-Agar:
Agar-agar is commonly used in processed foods such as doughnuts, marmalade & jam, jelly candy, cheese, puddings, gelatin fruit desserts, meat products, bakery fillings and icings, dry and canned soups and ice cream.
Side Effects / Health Issues:
Agar-agar is sometimes taken as a weight-loss aid. After being ingested, agar-agar absorbs water and can triple in size. This makes you feel fuller.
As long as it is taken with at least one 8-ounce glass of water, agar-agar is probably safe for most adults to take in this manner. If it is not taken with enough water, it can swell and block the esophagus or bowel. If this happens, immediate medical attention is necessary. Symptom may include chest pain, vomiting, or difficulty swallowing or breathing.
If you have a bowel obstruction, agar-agar might make it worse especially if it isn’t taken with enough water or other liquid. If you have a bowel obstruction, consult your doctor.
When agar-agar is used as an ingredient in other foods, it is probably always safe.
Using Agar-Agar at Home
You can usually find agar-agar in either flaked or powdered form. Most recipes do not specify which is being called for, but you can use the following guidelines.
- Powdered agar can be substituted for the same quantity of unflavored gelatin in recipes.
- One teaspoon agar powder = One tablespoon agar flakes.
- Typical usage level is 1/2 percent agar in water.
The amount of agar-agar required will vary depending on the ingredients it is mixed with. Foods that are more acidic (citrus fruits) will require more agar.
Just like with gelatin, some foods like pineapple, mango and peaches, contain enzymes that will prevent the agar-agar from gelling.
The E number of agar-agar is 406.