Gelatin from Collagen - Facts, Foods and Uses

Rainbow Jell-O, or jelly, made of colored and flavored gelatin encasing fruit
Rainbow Jell-O, or jelly, made of colored and flavored gelatin encasing fruit | Source

Gelatin or Gelatine

Gelatin (or gelatine) is a pale yellow, odorless and almost tasteless solid made by boiling collagen obtained from animals. Collagen is the most abundant protein in animal and human bodies and is found in connective tissue, which connects and supports other tissues. The collagen that's used for gelatin production is generally obtained from pig skin, cow skin or cow bones, but it’s sometimes obtained from the skin of fish instead. It isn't made from horns or from horse hooves, as is sometimes thought.

Gelatin is sold in a powder form or as sheets called leaves. When solid gelatin is added to hot water it dissolves to produce a solution. This solution thickens as it cools and eventually turns into a gel. Gelatin has many useful functions, including giving foods and cosmetics an appealing texture, improving the mouthfeel of foods and forming gel caps for medications. It's also used in a variety of crafts and in sports.

Gelatin powder
Gelatin powder | Source

Gelatin and Special Diets

Gelatin is widely used in the food industry, but its addition to food creates problems for certain people. Some people object to the use of gelatin for religious or ethical reasons because it's produced from animal tissues or because it's made from the tissues of specific animals. Any product made from pig tissue is unacceptable in some religions. People with certain religious beliefs require animals to be killed in a particular way (ritual slaughter) before they will eat any product obtained from them. Vegetarians may also refuse to use products containing gelatin.

There are materials in plants which form gels and can be substituted for gelatin, but they have slightly different properties from real gelatin. Nevertheless, they are a good option for people who don't want to use a product obtained from animals. Two of these gelatin substitutes are agar and carrageenan.

Colored and flavored jelly powder
Colored and flavored jelly powder | Source

How to Make Gelatin

Gelatin can be made at home by boiling animal skin and bones. The boiling process converts the collagen in the skin and bones into gelatin. The process of making gelatin in industry is similar, but additional steps are performed to improve the quality of the gelatin. The animal parts are first washed and degreased. They are then treated with an acidic or basic solution to remove minerals and make the collagen easier to access. Next, the processed animal parts are boiled in distilled water to produce gelatin. Finally, the water is evaporated from the liquid and the solid gelatin is pressed into sheets or ground into a powder.

If you boil beef bones at home to make stock, you'll probably notice a gel forming in the liquid as it cools. This is due to the production of gelatin from the collagen in the bones.

How to Make Beef Stock

Composition of Gelatin

Gelatin is a mixture of proteins and peptides obtained from the partial breakdown of collagen. A protein is a long chain of amino acids; a peptide is a shorter chain of amino acids.

Gelatin is rich in glycine and proline, two amino acids that are said to be "non-essential" because our bodies can make them. On the other hand, gelatin doesn't contain tryptophan and is very low in threonine, isoleucine and methionine. These four amino acids are said to be "essential" because we can't make them and must obtain them pre-formed in our diet.

Gelatin is a popular and useful food additive, but it’s not a very nutritious source of protein for humans because it lacks some of the essential amino acids.

The joy of a jelly or jello dessert
The joy of a jelly or jello dessert | Source

Gelatin dissolves in hot water and swells in cold water as it forms a gel.

Properties and Behavior

Gelatin in water is a hydrophilic colloid. A colloid is a mixture in which the particles of a substance are dispersed through a continuous medium. The particles are bigger than those in a solution but are still small. They aren't visible to us, can't be filtered and don't settle to the bottom of the container. The word "hydrophilic" means that gelatin attracts water.

When gelatin is added to hot water, the bonds holding amino acid chains together break. These chains then move through the liquid, becoming tangled. As the water is cooled, new bonds form between the tangled chains. In some places the chains form a triple helix (three amino acid chains joined together and twisted into a spiral). Water is trapped in the spaces within the helices and tangles, forming a gel.

Gelatin and Fruit Dessert Recipe

Uses of Gelatin in Foods

The gel formed by gelatin in water is stable over a specific temperature range (which depends on the quality of the gelatin and its concentration) and breaks down when it's heated. The gels that are added to foods such as marshmallows break down at below body temperature. This means that when the food is eaten, it softens and collapses, creating a "melt in the mouth" sensation and releasing flavor trapped in the gel.

Gelatin is used to make gelatinous desserts, gummy candies and many yogurts as well as some marshmallows. It's also added to certain meats to prevent them from drying out and to give them an attractive glaze. In canned meats, gelatin absorbs juices released from the meats as they are processed under pressure. In pâtés, the gelatin helps to stabilize the emulsified fat.

Gelatin is also useful for its thickening, emulsifying, binding and adhesive properties. In addition, it's able to attract impurities and clarify fruit juices, wines and vinegar.

Consommé is concentrated and clarified stock. Like stock, it forms a gel as it cools due to the presence of gelatin.

How to Make Consommé

Aspic

An aspic is a savory dish in which a gelatin gel made from a meat stock - or more commonly from a consommé - surrounds and encases meat. The meat stock is made by simmering animal bones, meat scraps and vegetables in water. These may all be roasted first to intensify their flavor. After the mixture has been simmered for a long time, the solids are filtered out to leave the liquid stock. The stock is cooled slightly so that it thickens and is then poured over meat in a mold. The stock may need added gelatin in order to gel, depending on the amount of bone that was added to the pot.

A colorless gelatin gel is often used in commercial aspics so that the meat inside is clearly visible. The gel can make it easier to cut the meat without causing it to disintegrate. The word "aspic" also refers to a dish in which a gelatin gel encases vegetables.

A Vegetable Aspic Recipe

Gelatin in Desserts

Gelatin is often added to low fat dairy products such as yogurt, ice cream and buttermilk in order to provide the sensation of eating fat. It may be added to some full fat products as well. The gelatin provides a smooth and creamy mouthfeel and the breakup of the gel in the mouth resembles fat melting. Gelatin in creams and whipped toppings help to stabilize their consistencies.

Fresh pineapple and papaya contain enzymes that prevent a gelatin gel from forming. The enzymes prevent the formation of the bonds needed to hold the amino acid chains together as the gelatin forms a gel. The enzyme mixture in pineapple is called bromelain and the enzyme in papaya is papain. Canned pineapple doesn't contain bromelain since the heat applied during the canning process destroys the enzymes.

Other foods that reportedly prevent the gel from forming include kiwi, figs, guava and ginger root. Any form of these foods that has been heated during pasteurization or another process should allow the gelatin gel to set, since the critical enzyme or enzymes will have been destroyed.

Mousse for Dessert

One of my favorite desserts in my childhood was a mousse that my mother made. The recipe was very simple. Jelly powder was mixed with water and evaporated milk and then whipped. The result was a dessert with a lovely taste and texture. The video below shows a variation of this recipe.

Jelly Mousse Recipe

Cosmetic and Pharmaceutical Uses of Gelatin

Gelatin may be used in skin creams and lotions, face masks, shampoos, hair conditioners, hair sprays, nail polishes and lipsticks. It's sometimes referred to as "hydrolyzed animal protein". The gelatin attracts moisture and thickens the products, given them a creamy texture.

Gelatin is also used to create hard and soft capsules to enclose medication and supplements. Hard capsules consist of two parts and are made when a stainless steel mold is dipped into a warm gelatin solution. The capsules are later filled with a medication. Soft capsules, also called softgels, consist of one part and are made from sheets of gelatin. They are filled with a medication as they are made.

Gelatin has been touted as a natural cure for weak nails and hair, arthritis pain, joint pain and osteoporosis. Some people claim that it's beneficial for weight loss and for recovery after exercise. At the present time there is little scientific evidence that gelatin has medicinal benefits, however. Nevertheless, some people report that they find it useful for joint problems.

Softgel capsules containing a supplement
Softgel capsules containing a supplement | Source

The gelatine gels used in food and medicines become a liquid as they warm up and are said to be thermally reversible substances. Gelatin gels used in industry usually have chemicals added to them and are no longer thermally reversible.

Other Uses of Gelatin

Gelatin is a versatile medium in arts and crafts for both adults and children. It's also used in some fun and unexpected ways. Some popular items that can be made from gelatin include the following.

  • plates for printing
  • sculptures
  • cake decorations
  • suncatchers for hanging up in a window
  • lenses
  • edible models for school projects
  • gummy worms (by putting gelatin in straws and allowing it to set)
  • air fresheners (after a scent is added)
  • photographic emulsions for film and paper
  • the shells of paintballs
  • glue

Gelatin is also used to bind the ingredients together in match heads and is added to some types of sandpaper.

Gelatin Printmaking

Gelatin is used by synchronized swimmers to hold their hair in place. The gelatin stays in the hair until it's washed with hot water. The process of creating the hair gel is sometimes known as "knoxing" after a popular brand of gelatin.

Safety Concerns - BSE Prions

Since gelatin is often made from cow tissue, there has been some concern that it can transmit the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) prion to humans. A prion is a piece of protein that has an abnormal form and causes disease. Prions cause other proteins to become altered in a domino effect.

BSE is sometimes known as "mad cow disease", since the prion affects the cow's brain, nervous system and behavior. The brain becomes filled with holes, resembling a sponge. When humans are exposed to the BSE prion they develop Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a neurodegenerative disease that is unfortunately always fatal.

The FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) has concluded that it's safe to eat gelatin produced from cow tissue if certain conditions are met. The requirements are that cows have their heads, spines and spinal cords removed immediately after slaughter, that these tissues don't contaminate other parts of the cows' bodies, that the cows showed no obvious signs of neurological disease before being killed and that they didn't come from a herd that contained an animal proven to have BSE.

Gelatin and fruit
Gelatin and fruit | Source

Storing Gelatin

Pure gelatin is considered to be a safe substance for humans to eat and apply to their body. The dry powder can last for a long time. However, gelatin gels that are going to be eaten should be kept in the refrigerator and eaten soon because the gel is a good food source for bacteria. In addition, cosmetics containing gelatin should be used reasonably quickly. The lids of cosmetic containers should be kept on the containers to reduce the chance of contamination.

A Versatile Substance

Gelatin is a surprisingly versatile substance. Although some people object to its use because it's an animal product, others find it very useful. It's interesting that a protein found in connective tissue can change into such a different substance when it's boiled!

References - Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)

© 2012 Linda Crampton

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Comments 16 comments

mwilliams66 profile image

mwilliams66 4 years ago from Left Coast, USA

Really fascinating hub Alicia. I had no idea that geletin was derived from animal skin and bone. I had always thought it was from fat. Very interesting.

My son is a vegetarian so I we have had to become very aware of the types of processed foods, medications and candies that it is found in. On the other hand, I am gluten intolerant and the use of gelatin has provided many gf drug options that were once not available. Also interesting to find out that gelatin is used in cosmetics.

Thanks for all the fantastic info.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, mwilliams66! Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your visit. It's great that gelatin capsules have enabled you to get the gluten-free medication that you need. One of my relatives doesn't like to eat animal products, but although there are vegetarian capsules available to hold medications, they've found that an important medicine that they need only comes in a gelatin capsule. They've had to accept that they can't be 100% vegetarian. Hopefully that situation will change soon.


GoodLady profile image

GoodLady 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

So very interesting. Learned a lot reading your Hub and found it fascinating - and filled with gradual and thorough explanations.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, GoodLady!


kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 4 years ago from Massachusetts

Hi Alicia, Great interesting information, some of it i did not know before. Thanks for helping me learn more about gelatin .

Vote up and more !!!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Tom. Thank you for the comment and for voting. Gelatin is an interesting substance - it's very useful!


mary615 profile image

mary615 4 years ago from Florida

Wow! You really did a lot of research and work for this Hub. I learned a lot by reading this Hub. I voted this UP, etc. etc.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, mary! I appreciate your comment and the votes.


Janis Goad profile image

Janis Goad 4 years ago

Interesting hub with lots of good research, Alicia. I am interested in learning more about plant-sourced gelatins, too.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Janis. Thank you very much for the visit and the comment. Yes, plant substitutes for gelatin are interesting, but they will have to be the topic of another hub. This one is long enough!


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

This was a very interesting and informative hub topic. I have learned something today about gelatin and it's source. I can see where some people would have to watch our for allergens and reactions. Voted up.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the comment and for voting, teaches. As always, I appreciate your visit!


drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

If there is a Gelatin Board of Directors somewhere, Alicia, they should invite you to be a valued member. So much extraordinary gelatin information is packed into his hub. And who knew? Brava, m'dear. Voted all the way up.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you so much for the wonderful comment, drbj!! I appreciate your comment and the vote very much.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi, how fascinating! Gelatin is one of those substances that I have never really thought about, amazing info, and voted up and thanks for sharing!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment and the vote, Nell. Gelatin is an interesting substance, and it has so many different uses!

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    Linda Crampton (AliciaC)1,250 Followers
    427 Articles

    Linda Crampton has a honours degree in biology. She has taught high school biology, chemistry and other science subjects for many years.



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