Gelatin likely calls to mind those tiny square boxes of dessert-sweet goodness known as Jell-O. Most human beings — at least since it was patented in 1897 — have eaten their first batch of the stuff by the time they turn two years old.
But Jell-O is a relatively new development in the history and use of gelatin, and it’s nowhere close to the only option if you’re hoping to incorporate it into your diet.
Aside from candies and other dessert-friendly items like Starburst, marshmallows, and Jelly Babies, you can get your gelatin fix by making it at home, certain foods, or through supplements.
The possible health benefits and general harmlessness of gelatin are two good reasons to do so. While the studies out there aren’t extensive, gelatin is an approved health benefit by Health Canada, which allows food manufacturers to say the material “helps to reduce joint pain associated with osteoarthritis.”
The material doesn’t have any such approvals stateside, but studies are ongoing.
In the Canadian case, the approved nomenclature is “hydrolyzed collagen,” but those distinctions are synonymous. To understand why they are, it’s important to know where gelatin comes from. So let’s ask the question:
What Is the Difference Between Collagen and Gelatin?
Think of collagen as the parent to gelatin. The latter is derived from the former. In simple terms, this happens through hydrolysis. The approach involves three core elements:
- Pretreatment, in which components such as calcium, salt, and water are removed from the “host.” Hosts generally come from the meat and leather industries as well as fish by-products. These factors keep gelatin from being considered a vegetarian product. We’ll get into some possible alternatives a bit later in this piece. Specific sources for gelatin include cattle bones, split hides, pork, and pigskins.
- Extraction, in which those collagen “impurities” are removed, takes place through the use of either water or acids at specified and appropriate temperatures.
- Recovery, which involves filtration, evaporation, drying, grinding, and sifting into a powdery substance.
To successfully pull gelatin from the collagen, certain parts of the animal source must be dehydrated. This breaks down three things — the intermolecular and intramolecular bonds holding the collagen together, and the hydrogen bonds doing so for the collagen helix.
If that sounds too complicated, don’t feel bad. You don’t have to understand it to get the benefits from it, and it’s a pretty complicated process, which is why you won’t catch us trying it at home.
But food manufacturers have it down to a science, producing around 375,000-400,000 tonnes annually.
Companies in the US and France have been using it heavily for at least 200 years, and there is ample evidence to indicate it goes back even further than that. But why has it been so popular for so long?
On the surface, it’s a pretty boring product with no taste or color. The answer likely is due to its versatility as well as what we now know about its efficiency with protein, particularly the amino acid content.
That begs the question:
What Is Actually in Gelatin?
Gelatin often is cited as a great protein source, and while it does pack a protein punch, it’s really no better in this regard than many other protein sources. However, all proteins are made up of amino acids.
These help build and heal muscles, processes that are hugely beneficial to building strength and boosting metabolism. The amino acid profile is where gelatin truly has it going on. Here’s a quick breakdown of what it’s packing:
- Glycine 21%: According to WebMD, this amino acid is involved “in the transmission of chemical signals in the brain, so there is interest in trying it for schizophrenia and improving memory. Some researchers think glycine may have a role in cancer prevention because it seems to interfere with the blood supply needed by certain tumors.”
- Proline 12%: Hellenia notes that proline is “known as a non-essential acid since your body can synthesize it through the breakdown of L-glutamate, which is another amino acid.” It has been linked to health benefits such as stronger connective tissue, healthier skin, decreased risk of heart disease, and muscle tissue maintenance.
- Hydroxyproline 12%: largely linked to the cushioning of joints and healing of cartilage, two major factors in being able to maintain your mobility as you get older.
- Glutamic acid 10%: a neurotransmitter that helps synthesize other neurotransmitters, also conducts protein synthesis.
- Alanine 9%: linked to a boost in exercise performance and improving lean muscle mass, particularly for the elderly.
- Arginine 8%: has proven effective in support for the healing of wounds, waste removal support for the kidneys, dilation and relaxation of arteries, and maintenance of hormone function and the overall immune system.
- Aspartic acid 6%: commonly associated with elevating testosterone levels, aspartic acid has been used in supplements that purport to boost libido, physical performance, and muscle building.
- Other 22%
Why Gelatin Is Not Just a ‘Nice-to-Have’
Gelatin is not just a “nice-to-have.” It’s an extremely helpful ingredient to body functions, especially as we get older. That’s because many of the conditions of aging — weakened bones and joints, cartilage breakdowns — are issues that gelatin directly addresses through its amino acid profile.
Furthermore, the 21st Century diet doesn’t get as much gelatin access as it used to due to the way in which the western diet views animal consumption.
We eat lean meats as well as vegetarian protein resources, but in consuming those types of proteins, we miss some of the amino acids that our ancestors were able to get through a stem-to-stern method of consumption.
In other words, they understood there were more edible parts of the animal than the meat itself. They knew how to process and prepare bones, tissue, and cartilage for human consumption.
They allowed nothing to go to waste and enjoyed certain benefits we’ve lost sight of by focusing on just the lean parts of the animal. In the next section, we’re going to take a deeper dive with some of these benefits.
The 8 Benefits of Gelatin
Reading through each of the amino acids should give you a pretty good indication of where this section is going. While many of the acids are non-essentials — or rather, your body can produce them on its own just fine without needing to get them through diet or dietary supplements — not everybody works the same way.
Also, there isn’t any evidence you can have too much, and since the body doesn’t perform as well as it once did throughout the aging process, it’s a good idea to have an alternative source.
Many of the issues that make aging so difficult and downgrade the quality-of-life are covered by what gelatin brings to the table. Let’s look at eight, to be exact.
1. Supports Gut Health
A 2013 survey from Fox News found that three in four Americans (74 percent) were living with digestive issues. The cited issues included gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and bloating, among others. All may sound run-of-the-mill, but as the report notes, it can be an underlier of a more serious condition.
“Over half of them never discussed it with their doctor,” said Dr. Rashini Raj, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, on behalf of AbbVie Pharmaceuticals, who commissioned the survey.
Raj told the news outlet that was “probably the most alarming part for me, because as you know, sometimes this can be a sign of a more serious underlying condition: celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, EPI or exocrine pancreatic insufficiency — so these are symptoms you shouldn’t ignore, and unfortunately a lot of people don’t feel comfortable talking about them.”
While gelatin isn’t a miracle drug, many researchers believe it can help with this through its glycine content, which is credited with supporting mucosal lining necessary to the lining of the stomach.
It also acts as a catalyst for digestive enzymes that help break down and process foods.
2. Improves Sleep Quality
The American Sleep Association notes that around 50-70 percent of Americans have some form of sleep disorder. Furthermore, about half (48 percent snore) and more than one-third (38 percent) fall asleep unintentionally throughout the day.
While the thought of that may seem comical on the surface, we now know enough about the connection between poor sleep and poor health to know these issues may be indicative of a more serious problem.
How can gelatin help work this out? Once again, glycine. The neurotransmitter aspects of this amino acid are said to ease anxiety levels, which assists in the body’s ability to drift off into a restful sleep.
And the keyword there is “restful.” Because you can think you’re doing just fine by trying to get your eight hours, but if you wake up frequently throughout the night and in the middle of sleep cycles, then you could be doing more harm than good.
3. Boosts Cognition and Mood
According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, close to 10 percent of Americans are living with some form of the disorder that affects their mood.
While some of these — such as bipolar disorder, for instance — are serious and require a diagnosis from a doctor as well as (possibly) stronger medicinal solutions, gelatin’s neurotransmitter aspects can be beneficial here as well.
4. Guards Joints and Eases Joint Pain
The aforementioned Health Canada endorsement lists gelatin as a component that can help with osteoarthritis. While many of the anecdotal benefits that users of gelatin have shared need to be borne out clinically, this benefit is generally agreed upon across the board.
As the body gets older, its supply of cartilage begins to wither and degrade. With less to cushion the space between bones, aches and pains begin to happen with more frequency.
This ups the chances of inflammation, thus exacerbating the effects of arthritis. Supplementing through gelatin and other approved medications can help maintain cartilage production. In turn, your joints have more protection and the frequency and effects of pain lessen.
5. Protects Hair, Skin, and Nails
As with the bone health issue, your body starts to make less collagen the older you get. This expedites the aging process. Gelatin is derived directly from collagen, and that’s why most beauty aid products incorporate it into their ingredients.
Since hair and nails both emanate from skin cells, gelatin has benefits for all three areas.
6. Assists with Cardiac Health
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “About 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year (25 percent of all deaths).
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. More than half of the deaths due to heart disease (are) in men.”
Again, optimum heart health requires a multi-faceted approach. It’s not something you’ll solve by taking a single dietary ingredient. It’s about diet, but it’s also about exercise, genetics, having the right medical help. In other words, don’t count on gelatin to do it all for you.
That said, there are aspects of gelatin which help. Chief among them: proline, alanine, and arginine. Proline, as previously mentioned, has been linked to a decrease in the risk of heart disease, while alanine aids in exercise performance, and exercise is essential for strengthening your immune and circulatory systems.
Lastly, arginine assists with dilation and relaxation of arteries.
7. Satiates Your Appetite
Gelatin does pack a nice protein punch. If you’re looking to go full-on keto, you’ll want some other choices to get you to your goals, but a single half-cup serving of gelatin delivers 1.6 grams of protein in about 83 calories.
Add it to the main course, and it will keep you fuller longer without smashing through that traditional 2,000-calorie diet plan you’re trying to stick to. As a result, gelatin can assist you, albeit indirectly, in being able to maintain and even lose weight.
8. Maintains Bone Health
In addition to maintaining strong cartilage and guarding against arthritis, one study has found gelatin to be a promising agent in the fight against osteoporosis.
According to the research parameters, “Sharkskin gelatin was orally administered to ovariectomized rats with a low-protein diet. The bone mineral density of the right femur was measured.
Collagen and glycosaminoglycan in the tibial end were extracted and analyzed by western blotting and cellulose acetate membrane electrophoresis, respectively.”
Administering collagen to the ovariectomized rats, the study concluded, “resulted in the bone mineral density of the femur epiphysis being higher than that in the sham-operated rats.”
Furthermore, the “contents of type I collagen and glycosaminoglycan in the epiphysis were increased by administering shark skin gelatin.”
Osteoporosis leads to the deaths of many elderly men and women each year. While you can trip and fall as a young person with little damage, elderly people can easily break bones and receive other injuries from which their weakened immune systems may never recover.
If consuming more gelatin can help prevent or mitigate the risks of osteoporosis, then why would you not wish to try it?
The Best Ways to Get Gelatin into Your Daily Diet
There are many super-tasty ways to get more gelatin into your diet. You can make specialty desserts like pannacotta or homemade pudding cups. Put it on pancakes, in lattes, lunchmeats, biscuits, Velveeta.
An increasingly popular way of getting your gelatinous fix is to consume bone broth. Bone broth has several health benefits including the following:
- Strengthening of immune system
- Reduced cellulite
- Assistance in overcoming food allergies and intolerances
- Prevention or stoppage of leaky gut syndrome
Bone broth also helps support detoxification, which assists the liver, and it’s high in protein for stronger muscles.
Possible Gelatin Side Effects
The so-called “side effects” of taking gelatin may exist, but they’re minor compared to what you may encounter with other foods and dietary supplements.
Still, it’s worth mentioning because a small group of individuals may have conditions that are agitated by use of gelatin. Therefore, let’s jump into it.
An Unpleasant Taste and Smell
In reality, gelatin doesn’t have a taste, but the textural consistency of it can sometimes lead people to complain about the way that it tastes when what they’re really saying is they don’t like the way it feels.
Even so, gelatin isn’t odorless, and you won’t find many people willing to defend its scent. Still, it’s not an overpowering odor in the way garlic and onions are. It won’t torpedo your body odor or breath without a little help from good old-fashioned lack of hygiene.
Heaviness in the Stomach
While gelatin’s ability to satiate you is largely seen as a benefit, it sometimes works a little too well and makes one feel a heaviness in the stomach that can be distracting.
This also may lead to side effects such as bloating, heartburn, and burping.
No food is for everyone, so that means you can always find someone that has an allergy or intolerance. Gelatin is no exception.
Most reported cases of reaction with gelatin are mild, but if you notice a pattern of unpleasantness every time you eat a food with gelatin in it, then you’ll want to consider an alternative like agar and carrageenan (seaweed extracts), konjac, and pectin.
And on a related note:
Conflicts with Moral or Religious Beliefs
Gelatin is not a vegetarian product, so if you’re vegan, you may wish to try out hypromellose instead. Aside from that, your religion may prevent you from eating gelatin or any food that contains it.
That’s because most of it is derived from pork skins, pork, cattle bones, and split cattle hides.
Some in the Jewish faith (kosher) and Muslim world (halal) steer clear of gelatin for this very reason, but they can still try one of the alternatives we’ve just mentioned or stick solely with gelatin derived from fish by-products.
It should also be noted that in the last seven years, science has made strides forward in the development of synthetic gelatin, so it’s entirely possible that in the next few years, those of you opposed to using it on moral or religious grounds will have a viable alternative that provides the same reported benefits.
Currently, it’s possible to replicate collagen’s structure through the use of self-assembling peptides. Extraction and recovery methods are still ongoing.
How Is Hypromellose Made?
One last aside on alternatives to gelatin: the vegetarian option of hypromellose is an inert, semisynthetic, viscoelastic polymer often used for eye drops.
From the food manufacturing perspective, it is used to thicken, emulsify, and suspend the decomposition of foods. It’s also used in cosmetics, detergents, cleaners, for contact lenses, paints, adhesives, and gypsum.