I’ll never forget the day I first learned the truth about gelatin. I was 16, and was in a café with a new friend when I offered him one of the marshmallows destined to be stirred into the hot chocolate I was about to drink.
He shook his head no, then explained, “I’m a vegetarian.”
I thought I was a vegetarian too, so I was pretty shocked to find out that my consumption of marshmallows and other candies indicated either an innocent ignorance (not anymore!) or a profound inconsistency that I was going to have to address, as I was soon to find out that gelatin(e) is derived from the collagen inside animals’ skin, bones, and connective tissues.
From the website of Gelatin Manufacturers of America:
“Gelatin is… obtained from partial hydrolysis of collagen derived from natural sources such as skin, connective tissue, and bones of animals. The raw materials used in the production of gelatin… include cattle bone, cattle hides and fresh, frozen pigskins.”
On a commercial scale, gelatin is made from by-products of the meat and leather industry. Contrary to popular belief, horns and hooves are not commonly used. Worldwide production amounts to 250,000 tons per year.
A translucent, colorless, nearly tasteless substance, gelatin is identified on coded labels by number E441. Like ‘natural flavors‘, gelatin can be found in marshmallows, desserts like “Jell-O,” frosted cereals, some low-fat yogurt, desserts, trifles, aspic, and many confectionaries such as gummy bears and jelly babies. It may also be used as a stabilizer, thickener, or texturizer in foods such as jams, yogurt, cream cheese, and margarine.
Gelatin can be used for the clarification of juices, such as apple juice, and of vinegar, and sometimes in the clarifying of wine. (Casein, egg white and isinglass are other wine fining agents that are not vegan.) When used in this way, it does not have to be listed in the ingredients. Luckily, it’s easy enough to ask the manufacturer if any animal products were used in the clarifying process.
Household gelatin comes in the form of sheets, granules, or powder, and is used as a gelling agent, stabilizer or thickener in cooking. Alternatives are carrageenan, Irish Moss, agar-agar (seaweeds), pectin from fruit, dextrins, locust bean gum, and silica gel.
Capsules for pharmaceuticals and supplements are typically made from gelatin, in order to make them easier to swallow. Hypromellose is a vegan alternative, and due to growing concern about the use of animal products, some nutritional supplements now use this ingredient, even though it is more expensive to produce.
Something I never knew is that gelatin is used as a carrier, coating or separating agent for other substances. In soft drinks containing beta-carotene (think yellow soda), it’s likely to be gelatin that made the beta-carotene water-soluble.
It is also found in a range of non-edible products, such as glues, nail polish remover and crêpe paper, in addition to being used in virtually all photographic films and photographic papers. Despite some efforts, no cost-effective substitutes have been found for photographic film. Digital photography is, of course, vegan, and there are some glossy papers for home photo printing that do not contain gelatin, such as most produced by Epson.
In art supplies, many watercolor papers are also sized with gelatin, and the highest-grade gelatin – made from the skins, hooves, and bones of calves – is used in gesso. Cosmetics may contain a non-gelling variant of gelatin under the name hydrolyzed collagen – another reason to buy only vegan cosmetics if you use them at all.
The existence and widespread use of gelatin is one of the more compelling reasons to check ingredients carefully when trying a new food. If you see that number E441, don’t let the coded message blind you to the truth of what is hiding behind it. Remember where gelatin comes from. Like rennet (used in cheese), it’s not vegan, it’s not vegetarian, and it’s not acceptable.