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Gelatin is everywhere. June 29, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, with troubling news for vegetarians, vegans, and anybody who’d prefer not to eat something made by boiling animal hides, bones, and connective tissues. No, I’m not talking about glue, but about its close relative, gelatin (or, for you Brits, gelatine).* Boiling all these animal parts releases collagen, the stuff that connects our own tissues, and that’s what gelatin is.

Gelatin’s ingredients are frightening enough in themselves. But gelatin made from beef parts can also carry the risk of transmitting mad cow disease (aka bovine spongiform encephalitis) if it’s made from an infected animal. There are other issues, too.

Googling “gelatin in food,” I found an article on the Vegetarians in Paradise website (www.vegparadise.com) that was a goldmine of helpful information. It contained this report from Professor David Klurfeld, chairman of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at Wayne State University: “Gelatin is a poor source of protein, and it is essentially low in essential amino acids. It was the basis for the liquid diets in the 1970s that caused the deaths of dozens of people from lack of essential minerals.” The American Medical Association also weighed in with a similar analysis. Bad news for everyone eating gelatin-based foods to strengthen their hair and nails!

The Vegetarians in Paradise article (“Is Gelatin Hiding in Your Food? Bone Up on Some Hidden Sources”) includes a fascinating history of gelatin, which was first used in 1808. The first patent for gelatin was awarded in 1845 to Peter Cooper. I quote: “Most of Cooper’s efforts were focused on his glue factory that used the same animal byproducts as gelatin.” (Eeewww!!!) Fifty years later, Cooper sold his patent to the couple who invented Jell-O, which has been sold continuously ever since. Meanwhile, Charles Knox introduced his “Sparkling Granulated Calves Foot Gelatine” in 1894, along with, again quoting the article, “a recipe booklet explaining the difference between food gelatin and glue used for carpentry.” Yum! Knox unflavored gelatin has also been a grocery-store staple ever since.     

Maybe you aren’t worried about getting mad cow disease (I’m sure the risk is minimal) or starving to death on a liquid gelatin diet. Maybe you don’t mind eating something made from cow or pork hides, bones, and connective tissue, and occasionally even fish skins and bones—after all, traditional soup stock is made with most of this stuff, too (not hides, though, I hope!). But if you’re vegetarian like me, you just don’t want to eat gelatin, period. The trouble is, it’s a lot harder to avoid gelatin than you might think.

Sure, you know enough to avoid Jell-O, aspics, and those little boxes of Knox unflavored gelatin. But would it occur to you to avoid an energy bar or a bag of marshmallows? How about gummi candies, gumdrops, Altoids, and Junior Mints? (Sorry, Jimmy Buffett.) 

Just as I wouldn’t expect to buy a carton of yogurt or a box of breakfast cereal and find that it listed hotdogs as an ingredient—though no doubt those mad food scientists are working away on an egg-, bacon-, and pancake-flavored breakfast cereal even as I write—I wouldn’t expect them to contain gelatin. But many of them, including popular brands like Dannon, Yoplait, Lucky Charms, and Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats,  do. So do lots of candies, ice cream, cottage cheese, sour cream, and margarine (pretty much all the butter-flavored and heart-healthy brands, sadly). And cream pies, cheesecakes, puddings, and frostings. And consommes and sauces. Vegetarians in Paradise points out that even cookies like Nabisco Devil’s Food SnackWells contain gelatin. Not to mention medicines and vitamins that come in gel (as in “gelatin”) caps, unless the package specifically says “VegiCaps.” It’s also used as a coating for some pills, and is a common ingredient in cosmetics.

Why add gelatin to all this stuff, anyway? The answer’s obvious in the case of Jell-O, capsules, gummi candy, and foods like aspic. I assume the gelatin acts like its relative, glue, to hold energy bars together and “glue” those frosted toppings onto cereals.  But for products like yogurt and “buttery spreads,” the answer is simple and, in my view, insidious: Just as manufacturers add tons of artificial sweeteners (or even sugar and high-fructose corn syrup) to replace the fat in low-fat products, they add gelatin to provide the firmness and body dairy products would normally have if they left the fat in. When you see “low-fat” or “lite” anything, take a good long look at the label. I wouldn’t be surprised to see gelatin listed on those new nonfat half-and-halfs that have been transforming the dairy shelves.

Mind you, not all products in a category—or even from the same manufacturer—contain gelatin. Take Dannon yogurt, for instance. Plain Dannon yogurt, even nonfat, is gelatin-free. Full-fat flavored Dannon yogurt and Dannon yogurt drinks are gelatin-free (at least they were last time I checked). It’s when you get to the Dannon low-fat and nonfat fruited yogurts that you see the dreaded word “gelatin” in the ingredients list. Similarly, plenty of puddings, including Kozy Shack brand and some from Jell-O itself, don’t contain gelatin. You just have to look.

What’s a vegetarian to do? Well, that depends. There are plant-based gelatin substitutes like agar-agar and carrageenan (both made from seaweed), guar gum, xanthan gum, arrowroot powder, and cornstarch (or modified cornstarch, the ingredient in Ultra Gel Supreme). Unlike gelatin, you need to learn how to use each of these ingredients, and it may take a few tries to get the consistency you want. A good guide to using agar-agar and carrageenan is on the VegCooking website, www.vegcooking.com, under “Gelatin Alternatives.” Ultra Gel Supreme provides detailed instructions on its package.

There are also thickeners for jams and jellies like Sure-Gel and Pomona’s Universal Pectin. Pomona’s box claims that it can also be used in aspic, jello, pies, and the like. Presumably, so could Natural Desserts’ Unflavored Jel Dessert, a vegan alternative to plain gelatin that’s made from vegetable gum and tapioca dextrin, among other things.

Then there are Kosher gelatins. Some of these claim to be vegetarian, some don’t. And some that claim to be vegetarian have been found to contain up to 50% collagen, a sure sign that animal-derived gelatin was used as an ingredient. Kosher gelatins that are supposedly vegan include Lieber’s unflavored gel, Carmel’s unsweetened gel, Hain Superfruits, and KoJel’s unflavored gel. But I say, caveat emptor (buyer beware)!

I’ve never tried a gelatin substitute myself. There are plenty of great things to eat that don’t require it. But I admit, when I think of my Mama’s beloved Black Cherry Wine Ring, Rum Pie, and Coffee Ring with Whipped Cream, I’m tempted to grab one of those veggie-friendly substitutes and see what I can do. I’ve resisted so far because I fear that the results would be gummy rather than Jell-O-like or creamy. Any advice from folks who do use vegetarian “gelatins” would be much appreciated!    

Gelatin: Yet another reason to read those microscopic and seemingly interminable ingredients lists before you buy (look for gelatin, hydrolyzed gelatin, and hydrolyzed collagen). But please be considerate of other shoppers and don’t block the aisle while you’re doing it!

                ‘Til next time,


* I’m indebted for today’s topic to a comment by Jen, whose wonderful Nyack Backyard blog (http://nyackbackyard.blogspot.com/) is a joy to read. Thanks, Jen!