Gelatin is an ingredient in many popular foods, but vegans and vegetarians alike have learned to avoid anything that contains this coagulating additive.
But exactly what is gelatin made of?
Those contemplating the question will be shocked—and even disgusted—to learn the answer.
What Is Gelatin?
Made from cows, pigs, and occasionally fish, gelatin is a jelly-like substance and ingredient commonly found in jellies, ice cream, gummy bears, ice cream, and even vitamins. It’s also sometimes used in cosmetics, chewing gum, shampoos, wines, and even photographic film. Gelatin is a protein and, unlike other ingredients in such items, isn’t considered an allergen, meaning it isn’t bolded on food ingredient lists, which is typically the case with allergens.
Gelatin also has medical uses, including treating brittle nails, diarrhea, osteoarthritis, and other conditions. It’s also used to stimulate the production of collagen in the body, which appears to reduce the impact of aging on the skin.
What Is Gelatin Made Of?
Gelatin is made from the dissolved skin, cartilage, tendons, bones, muscles, and ligaments of pigs, cows, and sometimes fish, which are boiled down to make various products. Because it’s an animal product, gelatin isn’t suitable for vegetarians or vegans, but, honestly, the fact that it’s made from the veritable leftovers of pigs and cows could put anyone off their lunch.
Some vegan and vegetarian consumers may believe they can get around this by choosing kosher gelatin, but this is not the case. Though certified kosher products are guaranteed to be free of animal exploitation and cruelty, gelatin typically receives a “pareve” rating, which signifies that, while no dairy or meat is used in the product, eggs or fish, and, in the case of gelatin, random bits of cows, might be.
Origins of Gelatin
First discovered in 1682, Frenchman Denis Papin uncovered gelatin while performing experiments on animal products. During this time, he developed a way to boil animal bones and remove the glutinous material. It wasn’t until almost 200 years later that gelatin met widespread usage, when philanthropist and inventor Peter Cooper patented the first gelatin dessert. Also an industrialist, Cooper didn’t go far with his invention, although he served as inspiration for other entrepreneurs, such as Pearl B. Wait.
A cough syrup manufacturer, Wait bought the patent from Cooper and turned it into a prepackaged dessert, perhaps best known by the name Jell-O, a name coined by Wait’s wife. At the same time, Jell-O would be discovered by chefs, who began adding it to menus, further adding to its success. It’s since become a staple in countless dishes and food products.
How Is Gelatin Made?
Gelatin’s production process starts with obtaining connective tissues, bones, and skin leftover following the slaughter of these animals for the meat trade. Since these materials go bad quickly, a food processing plant will typically source the natural protein from local slaughterhouses. Once obtained, the materials go through a relatively simple production process to make gelatin.
Inspection and cutting
Once the bits of bone, flesh, and skin make their way to a factory, they’re inspected for quality, with rotten parts being thrown out. The parts that pass inspection are then fed into a machine that cuts them into pieces, which are typically 12.7cm in diameter.
Degreasing and roasting
The resulting cuts are then passed through powerful sprays that wash away any debris before being soaked in hot water to be degreased. During this process, the fat content reduces to about 2% before the cuts are moved to an industrial dryer. There, it’s roasted at 200°F (100°C) for 30 minutes.
Acid and alkaline treatment
The animal parts and by-products are then moved to vats containing lime or another alkali or type of acid, where it stays for five days. The process allows for the release of collagen while eliminating the bacteria and minerals. Typically, an acid wash contains 4% hydrochloric acid with a pH level of less than 1.5. The alkaline wash, on the other hand, uses either sodium or potassium carbonate with a pH level above 7.
After five days, the alkali- and acid-treated raw material—animal parts—are moved into aluminum extractors and mixed with distilled water to be boiled. These extractors contain a tube that lets workers siphon off liquid as the animal parts break down, with this liquid now containing gelatin. Once removed from the extractor, the liquid is flash-heated for four seconds at 375°F (140°C).
Evaporating and grinding
Now a liquid, the gelatin solution is piped out from the extractor through filters that separate out any skin, bone, or tissue that may still be attached, with the liquid making its way to evaporators. These separate liquids from solids, with the liquid being piped out and thrown away, leaving the solid gelatin, which is then pressed into a sheet. Depending on what the protein is eventually used for, it may then be crushed into a fine powder.
Flavoring and coloring
Gelatin powder used in the food industry needs colorings and flavorings, such as sweeteners, which are added during this stage of the production process. Typically automated, preset amounts of these additives are mixed into the powdered gelatin. Gelatin used for other purposes naturally skips this step.
For most gelatin, the packaging process is automated, with preset amounts of the protein being poured into either polypropylene or multi-ply paper bags, which are then vacuum sealed. These are then set to be shipped to companies that’ll turn the gelatin into its final product, which varies depending on what the end product is.
Does Gelatin Have Any Quality Control Measures?
Gelatin’s production process must adhere to multiple quality control measures. Gelatin processing plants involved in this process must meet strict cleanliness levels and ensure additives are within regulatory limits. These regulations can vary depending on industry, with pharmaceuticals having stricter regulations than others.
In addition to safe food regulations are employee-related laws that regulate the health and safety of factory workers. The industry also applies best practices that focus on maintaining and improving standards, including automation and similar technologies that optimize and standardize the process.
The properties of gelatin depend on what use it’s manufactured for, but gelatin generally is characterized by its gel strength, low viscosity, high dispersibility, water retention, and jelly-like qualities. As a food additive, its chemical composition makes it a cheap and convenient way to make foods tougher while adding a protective coat.
What Foods Contain Gelatin?
While some foods obviously contain gelatin, such as certain desserts and gummy bears, its versatility means it’s used in more foods than many consumers may be aware of. As a texturizer, gelling agent, thickener, or stabilizer, here’s a list of some non-vegan-friendly products that contain gelatin:
- Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats and other frosted cereals
- Gel-cap medications and vitamins
- Some brands of peanuts
- Soft drinks
- Fruit snacks
- Beer and wine
- Dairy products such as yogurt and sour cream
- Ice cream and cakes
Does Gelatin Have Any Benefits?
After learning what gelatin is made from and how, you may be wondering why gelatin is used at all. Gelatin consumption actually offers multiple health benefits for the human body:
- Joint and bone health—Studies focusing on gelatin as a treatment for joint and bone pain conclude that people with osteoarthritis showed a reduction in stiffness and pain. Another study focusing on athletes showed similar results.
- Reducing the impact of aging—Gelatin is a primary ingredient in hydrolyzed collagen, which shows hope in treating the effects of aging, especially wrinkles and fine lines. A study focusing on this showed that women who took fish collagen showed a 12% increase in skin moisture, while those who took pork collagen showed a 28% increase. Hair also benefits from gelatin consumption, with people given gelatin showing an increase of 28% in the number of hairs compared to those who didn’t take it.
- Brain function—Because gelatin is rich in glycine, it has an impact on brain function, with one study showing that it improves memory and attention span.
- Mental health—While it’s unclear what causes schizophrenia, studies show that glycine plays a role in managing its symptoms, leading researchers to speculate that amino acids play a role. With glycine having an impact on the symptoms of schizophrenia, it’s possible that gelatin helps manage these symptoms. It also shows hope with body dysmorphic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Weight loss—Studies show that consuming as little as 20 grams of gelatin daily increases the production of chemicals responsible for lowered appetite. While casein, a protein found in milk, can also be used for this, gelatin reduces hunger by as much as 44% more than casein.
- Diabetes—Gelatin may also help with type-2 diabetes, reportedly helping lower blood sugar levels.
- Leaky gut—Gelatin protein can also improve gut health by protecting the walls of the gut from damage, although it’s currently unclear how or why this happens. Because of this quality, gelatin can be used to treat or prevent leaky gut.
- Liver health—Glycine’s impact on the liver can also be another reason to consume gelatin, with these amino acids helping to mitigate the impact of alcohol on liver function.
- Cancer—In a study on human cancer cells in test tubes, pig skin gelatin slowed the growth rate of stomach cancer, leukemia, and colon cancer, giving hope that it can be used to help treat these illnesses.
- Sleep—Glycine, one of gelatin’s main components, is known to improve sleep, with test subjects who took 3 grams of glycine before bed reporting they got a better night’s sleep and feeling less tired.
Ethical Alternatives to Gelatin
There are more than a few alternatives to gelatin obtained from animals, with these plant-based alternatives often offering the exact same uses and properties as gelatin protein. As such, these vegetarian versions are excellent alternatives:
- Agar agar—Made from seaweed, this is one of the more popular alternatives based on market research and can easily be included in various dishes.
- Pectin—Made with fruit, pectin can be used to make jelly and works well for thickening various food products.
- Carrageenan—Found in marshmallows and even frozen pizza, carrageenan is a lot like agar agar in that it’s made from seaweed and can be put to various uses.
While gelatin offers multiple health benefits, it relies on animal cruelty and exploitation, making it unsuitable for vegans and vegetarians. The fact that it’s made from animal bones and other leftovers from the meat production process can be stomach-churning for many consumers, not just those who don’t eat animals.
It’s far from the only option, however, and you have several sustainable and ethical options available if you decide to stop eating food products made with gelatin.