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Friday, December 16, 2011

The History of Kanten (Agar agar)

Agar is the phycocolloid, a substance that is extracted from red and brown algae.

Agar’s ancestor is seaweed noodle called tokoroten, it is originally comes from China and was introduced into Japan around 1300 years ago during Nara era. Though tokoroten comes from China, Agar is considered to have been discovered first time by Minoya Tarou Saemon at Fushimi Kyoto in 1658.

One day, he forgot to leave tokoroten at outside in winter and the tokoroten was frozen during the night and then water was vaporized during daytime. This was repeated for sometime. After that, he found out tokoroten became freeze-dried and thus was named as kanten, 寒天 (ie. freezed tokoroten).

The word "agar-agar", however, has a Malayan origin and agar is the most commonly accepted term, although in French- and Portuguese-speaking countries it is also called gelosa, while philipino calls it “gulaman”.

It was at Shimizu-mura, Japan, a monument commemorates the first commercial manufacture of agar by a relative of Tarozaemon, Miyta Hanbei of AzaShiroyama. Originally, and even in the present times, it was made and sold as ajn extract in solution (hot) or in gel form (cold), to be used promptly in areas near the factories. Its industrialization as a dry and stable product started at the beginning of the 18th century.

Agar production by modern techniques of industrial freezing was initiated in California by Matsuoka who registered his patents in 1921 and 1922 in the United States. The present manufacturing method by freezing is the classic one and derives from the American one that was developed in California during the years prior to World War II by H.H. Selby and C.K. Tseng (Selby, 1954; Selby and Wynne, 1973; Tseng, 1946). This work was supported by the American Government which wanted the country to be self sufficient in its strategic needs, especially in regard to bacteriological culture media.

Apart from the above American production, practically the only producer of this phycocolloid until World War II was the Japanese industry which has a very traditional industrial structure based on numerous small factories (about 400 factories operated simultaneously). These factories were family operated, producing a non-standardized quality, and had a high employment rate as production was not mechanized. For this reason, and in spite of the later installation of some factories of a medium to small size, only in recent times has Japan operated modern industrial plants.

However, when World War II started, the Japanese government decided to ban exports to prevent other countries using kanten bacillus for military purposes. After that, other countries started to create powder kanten to continue their bacillus research.

Therefore, powder kanten was initially created for research purpose and not for food. After the war, powder kanten manufacture was started in Japan as well, and created various different manufacturing techniques for many purposes, such as food, medical, bio technology, and cosmetics etc. As for the food, it was found that kanten had the potential to prevent cancer and other diseases.

Todays, creating new uses for kanten is a large area of study. Gracilaria of different species (The raw material of Kanten) is harvested in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Indonesia, India, Japan, Philippines and Sri Lanka. The world largest kanten producers are Chile, Indonesia, japan, spain and portugal.

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