What is gelatin, what is it made of, and what is it used for?
Gelatin may seem innocuous enough. After all, it’s the primary ingredient of the fun, wobbly dessert many of us recall from our childhoods. Unfortunately, the reality is that when we’re consuming foods with gelatin in them, we’re actually eating the bones and skin of cows and pigs. In fact, that fruity, flavorful dessert that comes surrounded with so much nostalgia is helping to prop up an industry that is destroying the environment and increasing the risk of another pandemic.
What is gelatin?
Gelatin, also known as gelatine, is an almost tasteless and colorless substance that is derived from collagen, which in turn is found in connective tissue and bones. Most gelatin is extracted from the skin and bones that are left over after animal bodies are processed into meat, leather, or other products. It has become a mainstay within a number of industries and can be found in everything from gelatinous desserts to meats, beverages, and medications. Beyond these purposes it can also be found coating some yarns, in the heads of matches, and in cosmetics. In short, gelatin is used in such a wide range of applications that avoiding it altogether can be difficult, and might even be impossible.
Are Jell-O and gelatin the same thing?
Gelatin and Jell-O are not the same thing. Gelatin is a mostly tasteless substance that is added to a variety of different products, both edible and not. It is derived from parts of an animal that are left over after a carcass is processed for meat, such as skin and bones. Many of the food products that contain gelatin use it to give the product a bouncy, gelatinous texture. Among these food products are the many varieties of Jell-O, a US brand that produces colorful and flavorful gelatinous desserts, some as ready-made products, others as a powder. In short, gelatin is an ingredient found in several different foods and products, while Jell-O is a brand of food products that contain gelatin as a key ingredient. Though there are no Jell-O brand products that do not contain gelatin, there are other brands that create similar products that do not, including Simply Delish and Bakol Natural.
Types of gelatin
There are two different types of gelatin: type A and type B. The first of these, type A gelatin, is obtained from collagen that has been acid treated. To make type A gelatin, the skins of pigs are soaked for several hours in an acid bath until they swell to their maximum size. They are then removed from the acid and rinsed with cold water before hot water is used to extract the actual gelatin. Type B gelatin is extracted using an alkali treatment, usually involving lime. This method of treatment is usually applied to the skin of cows and usually takes 8 to 12 weeks, though the process can take as long as 20 weeks. Once the actual gelatin has been extracted, it is made into one of two different forms, sheets or powders, to be sold to consumers.
Powder, like all gelatin, is derived from the collagen stored within the bones and skin of animals slaughtered for food or leather. The powder form has been dried and then broken into individual grains. These grains disperse more readily when used as an ingredient.
When made into sheets, gelatin has a more transparent appearance, but it does not disperse quite as easily throughout the dishes it is added to. Sheets are sometimes also referred to as gelatin leaves.
What is gelatin made of?
Gelatin is most commonly made out of the bones and skins of cattle and the skin of pigs. However, sometimes the bodies of chicken and fish are processed to produce gelatin. The earliest-known definite account of gelatin, from a 10th-century Arabic cookbook, is a recipe for making an aspic, or gelatin-based dish, out of fish heads. Historically, gelatin has also been made from hartshorn (stags’ antlers) and isinglass (sturgeon swim bladders). Today, the gelatin derived from the bones of cows is usually used in pharmaceuticals such as pills and tablets. Leftover trimmings from leather production operations are a primary source of the skin of cattle that is used in gelatin production.
Though gelatin may require animal bodies for its production, there are plenty of alternatives to gelatin that can be used for the same purposes in the kitchen and are completely plant-based and animal-free.
Agar agar. Made out of the cell walls of red algae, agar agar provides the ideal plant-based substitute for gelatin in jellies and other gelatinous dishes.
Pectin. Pectin comes from fruit and is most commonly used in jams and jellies. It has a more gummy and syrupy texture than animal-derived gelatin.
What animal is gelatin made of?
The animals whose bodies are most frequently turned into gelatin are cows and pigs. The bones and skin of these animals are the parts that are processed to extract the gelatin from their collagen. The body parts that are used to produce gelatin most frequently originate as waste from the leather and meat industries that process animal bodies for other products. Other animals are also sometimes used to produce gelatin, including fish, chickens, and other birds. Some gelatin is marketed as kosher and is made using the bodies of cows that were slaughtered in a manner consistent with kosher principles. However, due to the fact that the bones and skin are fully dried and stripped during processing some believe that all gelatin is kosher.
What is gelatin used for?
Gelatin has found its way into a vast array of different products and is used by the food and pharmaceutical industries, as well as a few others. Below are just a few of the applications for gelatin.
Sugary confections. Gelatin is what lends many sugary confections such as gummy bears and marshmallows their consistency, whether they are textured like a gel or melt in your mouth.
Gelatinous desserts. Gelatin’s best-known role is probably in gelatinous desserts such as Jell-O. Though such desserts have been around in the United States since the mid-19th century, they remain popular even today with over 100 million pounds sold annually.
Meat. Despite being derived from the cast-off remains of animal bodies during the meat production process, sometimes gelatin is added back into meat. Gelatin can be found in canned meats, head cheese, and other types of processed meats.
Capsules. In the pharmaceutical business, gelatin can be found in both soft gel capsules as well as harder ones. The gelatin lends both durability and flexibility to the capsule casing.
Paper. Some paper is coated with gelatin to fill in any imperfections and provide a uniform, flat surface.
Matches. Many matches use gelatin as a binding ingredient in the match head to keep together all the other ingredients that enable the match to work.
Is gelatin bad for you?
There seem to be no negative health outcomes associated with consuming gelatin in small amounts inside foods such as marshmallows, though the use of bovine gelatin from cows has been limited by fears over mad cow disease.
The real question is not whether gelatin is bad for your personal health but rather the impact that consuming gelatin has on public health, and the truth is that gelatin helps to prop up industries that are destroying the environment and increasing the risk of outbreaks of zoonotic diseases passed from animals to humans.
Producing gelatin depends on animal agriculture and helps to sustain its practices, especially the pork and cattle industries. These industries are extremely destructive to the environment, and cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation in almost every country across the Amazon, responsible for a massive 80% of deforestation taking place across the rainforest. Animal agriculture as a whole is responsible for 53% of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by the food industry.
Zoonotic diseases — those which are able to move from animals to people, including COVID-19 and bird flu — are another dangerous facet of animal agriculture. The animals being raised for agriculture are packed by the hundreds or even thousands into factory farms. The intensive breeding that they have undergone to emphasize certain characteristics makes them all extremely genetically similar, and combined with their cramped housing this means that once a disease takes hold it can spread like wildfire through the entire population of the farm until it is able to make the jump to a human host.
What is gelatin made out of today?
Today gelatin is primarily made out of the bones and skin of animals, mostly cows and pigs, that were slaughtered for their meat or leather. The used bones and skin are cast off during the initial slaughtering process, as they cannot be sold to consumers. Instead, they are sold to produce gelatin through the use of acid or alkali and exposure to an extended period of high temperature.
Even though gelatin has made its way into such a vast array of products, ranging from edible to medical and practical, this widespread use of animal collagen doesn’t have to continue. Even products that have become synonymous with gelatin, such as Jell-O, can be swapped out for a fully plant-based version without sacrificing the satisfaction of watching a dessert wobble.