In recent years, consumers have become increasingly concerned about the sources of products and the consequences of their purchasing decisions. We have become accustomed to reading the ingredient lists of every food and supplement that we buy. For vegans, vegetarians, and anyone else with dietary restrictions, this is a necessary step in the shopping process.
But some ingredients are present in so many products that we cease to notice them and never stop to wonder what they actually are. Gelatin is a prime example of this phenomenon. It is present in Jell-O, marshmallows, candy, and many other foods (using the term loosely). It is also used in most gummy vitamins and in other dietary supplements as capsules and coating.
I never gave gelatin a second thought until I become vegan, and I was disgusted when I found out the truth. It seems that very few people are aware of this topic. When I told an intelligent and usually well-informed friend of mine, for example, he was completely incredulous. By now, you are probably curious, so let’s get into the details.
Boiled tendons. Yum.
So, is gelatin vegan? In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the answer is no. Gelatin is in fact an animal product. Specifically, it is a form of collagen, a protein that is abundant in animal tissue. Gelatin is produced from the connective tissues, bones and skins of animals that have been slaughtered. The dismembered parts of these unfortunate animals (usually pigs and cows) undergo a multi step manufacturing process.
They are cut into pieces, degreased by soaking in hot water, roasted, and soaked in vats of an acid or alkaline solution to help loosen the collagen. The animal parts are then boiled in water to release the gelatin, and the liquid containing the gelatin is drawn off and sterilized. The liquid is then evaporated off the solid gelatin, and the gelatin is pressed into sheets and then ground to a powder. Finally, if the gelatin will be used for food, coloring, sweeteners, and flavoring may be added (1). Supposedly this makes it fit for human consumption.
Superfood for joint protection?
Unsurprisingly, some people have decided that gelatin is a magic cure for everything from osteoarthritis to osteoporosis to obesity. For added measure, it’s also supposed to strengthen fingernails and hair and aid recovery after exercise. Lured by these health claims and by buzzwords such as “grass-fed” and “non-GMO”, consumers buy powdered gelatin by the tubful and add it to anything that will dissolve the powder. Further, in a trend I can only describe as disturbing, food and lifestyle bloggers have started promoting gelatin as a “superfood” and even claiming that it’s a necessary part of the human diet.
What exactly is behind these claims? The idea is that gelatin benefits humans by increasing levels of collagen. Collagen is an important component of human tissues including cartilage and bone, so theoretically, increasing collagen levels should help these tissues.
To date, it is uncertain whether consuming gelatin actually increases collagen in the body. Gelatin is broken down into its constituent amino acids during digestion, so the question is whether they are reliably put back together as collagen. There have been a few studies that support the use of gelatin for relieving pain and improving joint function in patients with osteoarthritis, as well as helping general joint health.
However, according to WebMD, there is insufficient evidence for any of the health claims related to gelatin (2). So, I would recommend saving your money and instead spending it on whole plant foods, which will do you a lot more good than a spoonful of animal bone powder. The vitamins in plants help your body to build its own collagen, and there are even vegan supplements that can boost collagen naturally.
… Or powdered mad cow disease?
Gelatin doesn’t just have dubious health benefits; it also may harbor disease. Concern about contaminated gelatin began when bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, was first reported in Great Britain in 1986. The FDA currently places no restriction on the importation of gelatin from countries where BSE is present. Gelatin is not known to be involved in spreading BSE, but manufacturing practices may not be effective in removing infectious agents if they are present (1).
Besides diseases such as mad cow disease which are harbored in the animals themselves, gelatin may also be affected by surface contaminants. There are many opportunities for contamination during the complex, multi-step procedure used to make gelatin. Even worse, the high protein content of gelatin, lauded by “health bloggers”, makes it a real treat for a variety of microbes.
In one study, scientists collected 142 samples of gelatin at various stages of manufacturing and tested them for enterobacteria, which indicate fecal contamination. They found eight different species of enterobacteria, including Salmonella and E. coli. They also found that the bacteria changed the amino acid composition of the gelatin through their enzymatic activities (3). So, if you haven’t been turned off gelatin yet, it might not even provide the full array of amino acids that you think it does.
As I have shown, there is a multitude of reasons to be disgusted by gelatin. Still, it can be hard to avoid, especially when shopping for supplements. But consumers are becoming more aware of where their products come from, and many of us are less than thrilled about eating boiled animal bone byproducts. And companies have responded to demands. Garden of Life, for example, has substituted fruit pectin for gelatin in their gummy multivitamins for men, women, and kids. Supplement capsules are increasingly made from cellulose rather than from gelatin.
There are now even vegan marshmallows made with carrageenan from red seaweed and gummy candy made with pectin or agar-agar (also from seaweed). I won’t claim these are health foods, but for an occasional treat they certainly beat the alternative.
Read and understand.
The issue of gelatin underscores just how important it is for us as consumers to not only read food and supplement labels, but to also understand them. The familiarity of an ingredient doesn’t guarantee that it is safe and wholesome, and on the other hand unfamiliarity doesn’t mean an ingredient is dangerous. Manufacturers are not required to prove that their products are safe, and they almost never go out of their way to reveal the manufacturing process.
Consider why Jell-O is such a classic food, yet so many people are completely unaware of the truth behind its defining ingredient. If Jell-O packages pictured the ligaments of slaughtered animals, who would want to buy it? It’s up to us as consumers to inform ourselves so we can buy from trustworthy companies and support the industries of the future.
If you know of any other ingredients with shocking origins, please comment below and I will reply as soon as possible.
1. Gelatin. (n.d.). Retrieved September 3, 2018, from http://www.madehow.com/Volume-5/Gelatin.html
2. Gelatin: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions, Dosage, and Warning. (n.d.). Retrieved September 3, 2018, from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-1051/gelatin
3. Sharma, A., & Gupta, P. (2006, March 28). Screening of Enterobacterial Contamination During Gelatin Production and its Effect on Pharmaceutical Grade Gelatin. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11274-005-4352-8