WTF is… Gelatin

In this section of Veggies-Rock, we will explore vegetarian and non-vegetarian food products and additives. You may discover a new food you may wish to try, or discover something about one you may never want to eat again. The first installment may fall into the latter category.

I often tell people that if you knew what Jell-O is – or how its key ingredient gelatin is made – you may never eat it again.  I too was shocked to find out it was not only derived from animals, but the unused parts a butcher throws away such as the hooves, organs, skin, bones, and hides. (Sorry for that graphic image.)  My awakening to this came from a TV show called “The Straight Dope,” which was a short-lived program on A&E based on a long-running newspaper column of the same name. It aired in the mid-’90s when I was turning vegetarian, so it was perfect timing when I discovered it . Who would think this colorful concoction my mom made me would have such an unpleasant source. Unfortunately, I can’t find the clip anywhere, but the gory details are available at the Straight Dope website, where you will also find years of archived information from their columns and books. (Proceed with caution – inquisitive minds could spend a long time there.)

According to the Gelatin Manufacturers Institute of America (yes, there is such a thing) the earliest records of gelatin production trace to the 1600s. It is basically an end product of the collagen, proteins and other elements which have been extracted from the aforementioned animal parts. Strong acids, lime and other chemicals break down the animals’ tissues, and it is then boiled, filtered, dried and ground into a powder. This compound melts when mixed with water and heated, but becomes a solid as it cools. It is tasteless and colorless, so other ingredients or chemicals may be added during its powder form depending on what it will be used as.

While you may now run from a bowl of Jell-O, the truth is that it is quite difficult to avoid gelatin completely. As it is fat-free and not expensive to produce, it is used as thickening agent in many foods such as candies, marshmallows, soup and yogurt as well as the being the digestible casing for vitamins and pharmaceuticals.  It is also a component in countless everyday products including photographic film, cosmetics, glue and the colored gels used in lighting rigs.

There are vegan alternatives, but since they are more expensive to produce they tend to cost more. Kosher gelatin may or may not be vegan; it only means it did not come from pigs or animals slaughtered by kosher standards. It can also be made from fish bones. Vegan gelatin desserts are made with agar, which comes from seaweed. You can buy them in Asian food stores.  Oddly enough, Jell-O brand desserts contain gelatin while Hunt’s Snack Pack (and others) are vegan.

But rest easy, non-veggies. Consumption of gelatin is as harmless as any foodstuff, if not safer as it has been refined and sterilized during the production process. But in the end there is no question where it comes from.

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