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