As an ingredient, gelatin seems standard enough. After all, it’s found in a variety of everyday foods—from breakfast cereals and yogurts to marshmallows and gummy bears, and (of course) the nearly eponymous Jell-O treat. But knowing where your food comes from isn’t just about knowing where it’s sourced. It's important to understand the ingredient list and stay informed about what you're putting into your body.
Even though you might frequently see it on the labels of common foods and supplement bottles, do you really know what gelatin is made of? To help you understand this common, yet divisive ingredient, we’ve taken the liberty of assembling everything you should know about gelatin, including what it's made of, the benefits of consuming it, and some of its possible drawbacks.
What It's Made Of
In semi-scientific terms, gelatin is made of hydrolyzed collagen and in its basic form is colorless, flavorless, and translucent. Collagen is a soft protein found naturally in the body—or in this case, the bodies of animals. Collagen serves as connective tissue among bones, tendons, muscles, and skin. Once it’s extracted using hot water or acid solutions, it’s treated to ensure purity and consistency, and then packaged as a final product.
What gelatin is made of can vary widely based on where the raw materials come from. (Vegetarians and vegans, you may want to skip ahead for this part.) Most commonly, following the removal of animal meat intended for consumption, the remaining pieces are thoroughly cleaned, dried, and separated from bacteria and minerals. These parts might include hide, bones, and pieces that are low in meat content, such as ears. Once sterilized and thoroughly processed, gelatin is deemed suitable for use and is either sold on its own or used as an ingredient in an array of other products.
There are quite a few benefits to gelatin consumption (that is—when it's not found in highly-processed desserts). Although your body naturally produces collagen, it's still beneficial to eat foods or take supplements that contain it, including gelatin, since what you produce typically isn't enough. As anyone who’s ever used a collagen-boosting product can attest, collagen is prized for its benefits to hair, skin, and nail health. As an alternative to gelatin, collagen-boosting foods include red bell peppers, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes.
Gelatin also includes glycine and proline, two health-friendly amino acids that can help to support joints and reduce inflammation. The high-protein ingredient is actually thought to aid everything from improving gut health and sleep quality to boosting your mood and cognitive abilities. If you’re interested in a form of gelatin that’s a bit more carefully vetted than standard supermarket fare, a good alternative is non-GMO, grass-fed beef gelatin from Zint. Our friends at PETA have also been kind enough to share this list of totally viable (and vegan) gelatin alternatives.
Although there are scientific studies that support the idea that gelatin can provide a host of health benefits, there are still many questions surrounding the ingredient, including a few possible drawbacks. In addition to gelatin being a problem for vegans and vegetarians due to the fact that it's created from animal byproducts, it can cause health issues when consumed in excess. Eating too much gelatin too quickly can overwhelm your body and can cause feelings of constipation and bloating.
While it seems as though consuming collagen in products is rather harmless (and potentially beneficial), you'll want to speak with your doctor before taking any supplements or making a major change to your diet.