Gelatin is an animal protein. It is about 85-90% collagen, plus some mineral salts. Historically, when our diet included eating all the different parts of animals, not just the muscle, we regularly consumed relatively large quantities of gelatin. But nowadays, we seldom do. Maybe we should?

What is gelatin?

Gelatin is a translucent, colorless, flavorless food ingredient derived from the bones and connective tissue of cows, pigs, chickens, and fish. It is used as a gelling agent in food, medications, photographic paper, crepe, and other papers, glues, and cosmetics. But its use has decreased and other gums are now often used in its place.

Substances containing gelatin are considered gelatinous. Think of gummy bears, marshmallows, gelatin desserts, and some yogurts.

Gelatin for cooking comes as either a powder, in sheets, or as granules. It readily dissolves in hot water and sets to a gel on cooling.  When added to cold water, it doesn’t dissolve well. 

A popular food high in gelatin content is bone broth, as this is made by boiling animal bones. 

Gelatin Chemistry

Gelatin is comprised of 18 different amino acids – the building blocks of proteins. There are nine amino acids which are considered essential to the human body – called essential amino acids. Interestingly, gelatin is the only animal protein that doesn’t contain all nine of them. It lacks tryptophan. However, tryptophan is readily available in other animal and vegetable proteins.

The predominant amino acids in gelatin are glycine (20+%), proline, and hydroxyproline. 

Why should we be interested in Gelatin?

There isn’t that much research on gelatin – but then as with all foods, funding sources for food studies are very limited. 

However, studies (some in animals, on isolated cells, and some in humans) suggest the following potential benefits from consuming gelatin:

  • reduces inflammation in intestinal cells and may help improve the gut lining, reducing its permeability
  • decreases the severity of colitis and microscopic colitis
  • increases synthesis of collagen, especially when combined with vitamin C and exercise. 
  • reduces chronic diarrhea
  • enhances wound healing
  • reduces menstrual bleeding and uterine bleeding due to fibroids 
  • reduces blood sugar spikes
  • balances gastric acid production

Many of these qualities of gelatin are considered to be due to its high glycine content. 

As some of the research has only been done in animals, the results may not apply to humans. This is something you should be aware of when you read about any potential benefits whether for drugs, foods or herbs. All too often I read headlines or posts about benefits when only animal studies have been conducted.  You cannot simply translate results from in vitro (cell) and in vivo (animal) studies directly to humans. Rather, in vitro and in vivo studies are great for helping us figure out the science and pathways of effects we have seen in humans. 

What isn’t gelatin?

Jelly on a plate, jelly on a plate
Wibble wobble, wibble wobble, jelly on a plate

Do you remember that phrase from a nursery rhyme?

Many people consider jello or jelly to be made from gelatin, but they are not good sources of gelatin and some don’t even contain gelatin. Let’s take a look at what they are.

In the US, Jell-O is generally made from gelatin with the addition of copious quantities of sugar or artificial sweeteners, artificial colorings and flavorings.  Not a recommended source of gelatin.

In the UK, there are three types of jelly.

  1. Pots of premade jelly. They do not contain gelatine but use gums as gelling agents.
  2. Jelly crystals. Most often, these are made with gelatin plus artificial sweeteners or sugar, and artificial colorings and flavorings. 
  3. Jelly cubes. As with the crystals, these are generally made with gelatin but contain artificial food colorings and sweeteners. 

Even if your jell-O or jelly contains gelatin, it is not the form you want to be eating. Often the first, largest ingredient in these products is sugar. Followed by a few chemicals to give it color and flavor.

The worst of the lot and the latest trend in the UK is glitter jelly! Yes, they add some titanium dioxide to it to make it glitter. You may be familiar with titanium dioxide as something in sunscreens and white paint. We do not need to be eating it! Yet, in addition to glitter jelly, it is part of quite a few white foods such as coffee whitener, processed white cheese, powdered sugar (think dusting on donuts etc).  So let’s leave the glitter to kids craft projects, and not eat it. 

Good sources of gelatin

If you choose to eat gelatin, look for one that is derived from grass-fed cows or fish. Here are a couple – Vital Proteins and Great Lakes. I’ll talk more about them and the research next week, and look out for a good pomegranate gummy recipe on Friday.  

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