The many wonders of Angelic Acid

I have a vivid childhood memory of helping my mum decorate a special occasion cake.  Soft and delectable, smothered in the whitest cloud of icing, decorated with red cherries and sprigs of green glazed angelica stem.

Glazed angelica, which I couldn’t find while trying to recreate that memory for a very special little someone. 

How else is Angelica used

The Angelica plant is used is many industries. 

The French liqueur chartreuse is made from natural ingredients and consists of an alcohol distillate of 130 herbs, flowers and plants, including Angelica roots.  The recipe which dates back to 1605 has been handed down over generations by Carthusian monks.  And it is a component of gin

The flavour of Angelica is said to be similar to that of juniper berries. 

Angelica is also used in the perfume industry and is anecdotally known for its many therapeutic properties.  It may be taken orally or applied as an emollient to the skin.  There are side effects, notable during sun exposure.

Researchers continue to investigate the components of Angelica.  Between 2009 and 2018, 767 studies related to Angelica sinensis were published. These included 717 primary articles and 60 review articles. 

What is in Angelica?

It got me thinking about what it was in the Angelica that had me so enraptured, and also what accounted for its use in myriad industries. 

Angelic Acid

It turns out, Angelica contains Angelic acid as its ester  derivative, among many other compounds. Esters are a class of organic compounds, which occur naturally or may be synthesised in a laboratory.  In the laboratory, one of the methods for making esters involves heating a carboxylic acid with an alcohol to form its ester derivative.  The reaction is slow and reversible. 

The name itself, conjures the almost ethereal feeling I experienced while eating that cake, and the memories, it evoked. 

Some chemistry

Angelic acid is simple in structure.  It consists of just five carbon atoms, eight hydrogen atoms, and two oxygen atoms.  It has a double bond and the carboxylic acid grouping. 

The German pharmacist Ludwig Andreas Buchner isolated Angelic acid in 1842 from the roots of the garden plant angelica (Angelica archangelica). 

Angelica archangelica flowers isolated on white background – scisettialfio/Shutterstock.com

Hence the evocative name given to the compound which is also known in chemical nomenclature as (Z)-2-methylbut-2-enoic acid.

These days, Angelic acid may be isolated and purified from the roots of Angelica sinensis or it is synthesised by isomerising tiglic acid. 

If you have a vague recollection of some of these basic chemistry-related terms, you could find them in your old chemistry textbook, or you could do an internet search.

Where is Angelic acid used

The pure Angelic acid has many industrial applications with a gain in market growth forecast in the period between 2020 to 2025. 

As a food additive, its taste is described as being spicy, caramel, sweet, dry and woody. 

The fragrance industry uses angelic acid and describes its aroma as being spicy

Angelic acid’s use as a sedative is well known and perhaps the presence of its ester derivative may contribute to the calming effect of Roman chamomile, in which it is also found.  

Protective properties

Interestingly enough, Angelic acid has been shown to exhibit a protective effect against photodamage by UVA radiation, thus opening the way to further application in the cosmetics industry.

Surprisingly, Angelic acid was also identified in the defensive secretions of three ground beetle species and was a major component in the extracts obtained from Carabus ullrichii.  The compounds extracted acted as  protection against predators. 

Guardian angel, indeed. 

Wonderful stories

Which takes me back to Angelica archangelica.  There are some wonderful stories behind the name given to the plant which originated in Syria. 

One story goes that its name was derived from a dream experienced by the 14th Century physician Mattheus Sylvaticus.  And that the archangel revealed Angelica as a medicinal plant. 

No cake for me, mum

That special little someone, my son, does not like cakes.  He prefers doughnuts. And I still haven’t found any glazed angelica.


 This piece was edited by Matthew Hattingh, Iza Grek and Niki Moore

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