Dessert topping or floor wax? Both.
I recently returned from my first real (i.e. more than 24 hours) trip to New York, justified by the monthly meeting of the Experimental Cuisine Collective. The speaker, NYU Chem Professor Kent Kirshenbaum totally changed my view of plant-derived amphiphiles in one of the best science presentations that I've seen. He started with the Saturday Night live skit that introduced New Shimmer to the world. After some initial slides about the science of soap, he demonstrated how to make soap from various plant extracts, called saponins. A small amount of quillaja extract in a bowl full of water turned to foam with the help of an electric mixer. He used this to clean off the white board and some spots on his tie. When dispensed from an iSi whipper, it looked a lot like a dessert topping.
The second challenge was to make something that tasted good enough to put on butterscotch pudding. Many middle eastern desserts incorporate all types of unique plant extracts, like salep, an orchid extract used to make stretchy ice cream (see this Cooking Issues post for more info). In this case, Prof. Kirshenbaum used a different extract to make meringues and a type of mousse, which the audience got to try. They had a somewhat bitter, herbal taste which was balanced by some fresh fruit toppings. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but the recipe could use some work before going mainstream. Still, there is an expanding market for vegan or egg-free desserts. A company called Angel Food in New Zealand is making vegan marshallows and meringues, and there are likely others out there.
Not only are these saponins floor cleaners and dessert toppings, they could potentially be used as medicine. There is a long list of the purported health benefits of saponins. Many of the claims are probably too general to prove, but there is preliminary evidence that they can bind to cholesterol, suggesting the possibility to be used in a cholesterol-lowering drug. The Masai people of Africa eat a diet rich in meat, dairy, and cattle blood, yet have surprisingly low cholesterol. This could be due to their practice of cooking their food with the bark or stems of certain plants that contain high levels of saponins.
Even if a cholesterol-lowering, floor-cleaning, vegan confectionery doesn't hit the supermarket shelves anytime soon, I still had a great time learning about saponins. Perhaps I should watch old SNL skits for more PhD thesis topic ideas.