Gelatin Isn’t Vegetarian (And Is Kind Of Gross), But Is It Bad For You?

Gelatin desserts contain animal products

I became aware of what gelatin was and where it came from at a county fair in Oregon. I was maybe 7 or 8, and there was a box of Jello, set up decoratively next to a cow hoof as part of a 4H project, which explained that gelatin, the stuff that made gummy candies gummy and Jello jiggly was an animal byproduct. I was horrified. But I found that the clear gelling product is so ubiquitous, avoiding it requires a level of vigilance and awareness that would make a member of the Secret Service sweat. Now, as a vegetarian, I avoid it. But as a health writer, I was curious–is it actually unhealthy? Or is it just kind of gross?

Gelatin, just to be clear (no pun intended), is a colorless, flavorless substance that is most often used as a binder–and it’s used in more than just food. Gelatin can be found in film, sandpaper, gel caps, cosmetics, and even beverages, as a carrier of food coloring. Once you start looking for it, you’ll start to see it everywhere. But that doesn’t mean it’s either good or bad for you.

The first interesting thing I learned about gelatin is that that little girl’s project at the Lane County Fair was technically incorrect–gelatin doesn’t actually come from hooves and horns like most people believe. It’s actually much ickier than that. Rendered from the by-products of the livestock industry, gelatin is mostly made from collagen harvested from skins and hides (from cows and pigs), as well as bones. Which is, I think, strangely worse.

The second interesting thing I learned about gelatin is that, health-wise, there’s not a lot to it–and that it’s heavily, heavily regulated to ensure that no diseases are transmitted from the animals to the consumer. Technically, it’s mostly protein, but the way it’s processed and used makes it basically nutritionally vacant–without key amino acides, humans can’t really make any use of it. Which means, in passing, it’s basically just filler. But if taken in large doses, and coupled with the essential ingredients to allow people to digest and use it, it can be used to treat joint pain and osteoporosis.

It seems, then, that gelatin itself isn’t bad for you–but that doesn’t mean that the stuff it’s found in is a freebie. Candies, desserts, and other items made with gelatin often also contain dangerous preservatives, food dyes, and other ingredients that you probably don’t need to be putting in your body. If a food product contains gelatin, there’s a good chance it’s not your best snack option.

If  gelatin’s icky roots have you too skeeved out, there are plenty of potential substitutes like pectin, agar (which is made from seaweed), and guar gum, which aren’t made from rendered animal bones and skin. But if the source of the slimy stuff doesn’t bother you,  think of it as a red flag when you see it–but don’t be afraid to have the occasional treat.

Image:  Ildi Papp via Shutterstock

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    • August S.

      A red flag…for broth? Homemade broth contains gelatin, along with calcium and important trace minerals. I think it’s a bit biased of you to call gelatin a “red flag” even for people who have no qualms using the whole animal, after your research into the food found nothing unhealthy about it– you even mentioned it’s used to promote joint health!

      Instead of looking for gelatin on a label, people should be looking for corn syrup, “cellulose” (another name for wood pulp), and basically all those long complicated chemical names that are as unpronounceable as they are unnatural.

      Please don’t let your personal food agenda get in the way of presenting the facts honestly.

      • Hanna Brooks Olsen

        Hi, August. The context is that gelatin is often present in candies, desserts, and other highly-processed refined foods, which aren’t healthy no matter which way you slice it. So while gelatin may not be concerning in and of itself, food dyes, and other preservatives (like the entire article I wrote about all of those “long chemical names,” which is linked to, if you’d like to read it) often accompany gelatin in processed foods.

        Homemade broth may sometimes contain gelatin, but the store-bought kind also comes with tons of excess sodium and other emulsifiers which may not immediately alert consumers.

        Promise it isn’t a “food agenda.” Hope that helps (and that you’ll keep reading the rest of the site to see what I mean)!

    • sarah

      I totally agree that the processed foods that often list gelatin as an ingredient for consistency purposes, and pre-packaged, flavored and colored gelatin as well, are not great food choices, but naturally derived gelatin from stock from animal bones and cartilage is amazingly nutritious! I know this website often slants vegetarian/vegan, but the fact that a beneficial substance is often accompanied by preservatives and emulsifiers in processed foods doesn’t make the substance itself bad! It’s like saying not to eat things that have vitamin C, because vitamin C is often used as a preservative in commercial sugary beverages. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    • Kemba

      I have no issue with gelatin. Things tasted good when I didn’t know where it came from and it will taste the same now that I do….not that I eat gelatin products regularly as far as I know. Just like most people know that honey is a substance that bees regurgitate (impolitely speaking : bee vomit) and still choose to consume it. If it tastes good and isn’t bad for you…where do I care where it comes from?

    • Wee Sritippho

      I often eat gummy candies with cola flavor. Sometimes I have a fever after I ate about 60 grams of them, not sure what actually is the cause, excessive sugar or that dangerous ingredients that you mentioned.

    • Spi

      Why so scary? we eat many other things that are more gross than that, even vegetarian food is fertilized with poop.

      Anyway, as far as I know the side-effects of gelatin is that it can absorb proteins rather than give them, because many brands have syntactical gelatin.

      @Wee Sritippho, you maybe have some allergic reaction on some components like syntactical ones. It cannot be from “animals”.

    • Kristin

      Gelatin comes from animal bones and that’s nothing wrong with consuming it. Gelatin also comes from broth. Why do you think sick people feel better after consuming broth? They also make your nails strong. That’s a fact. The most important thing to do is to buy GRASS-FED gelatin. Avoid processed gelatin. Check and type in “Great Lakes”.

    • Hey

      Thank you for the info it is a big help but i found it in my protein drink and was wondering what kind of effect that would have. It is one of the last ingredients so there is not much of it in the product but if u have any useful info please help. Thanks

    • Hey

      Thank you for the info it is a big help but i found it in my protein drink and was wondering what kind of effect that would have. It is one of the last ingredients so there is not much of it in the product but if u have any useful info please help. Thanks