|The Health Benefits of Gelatin
by Sandra Brandt
Gelatin production could be called a form of recycling. Gelatin is a mixture of amino acids extracted from animal collagen, which comes from “waste” products of animal farming, including bones, ligaments, cartilage, connective tissues, skins, and hides, by a process known as hydrolysis. This process enables the extraction of a dry substance from the collagen; the tasteless, odourless, light-coloured powder that is called gelatin.
Gelatin is 98% to 99% protein, but it is composed of only a few particular amino acids (the building blocks of protein), none of which are actually the “essential” amino acids the body needs to make protein. Rather, they are amino acids that are already produced by the body. However, gelatin consumption has still been shown to be beneficial to health, besides being the essential ingredient in certain types of dishes.
The word gelatin comes from the Latin gelatus, meaning stiff or frozen, which refers to its ability to transform a liquid into a solid. Powdered gelatin was patented as early as 1845. It was traditionally a popular form of food preservative, used for binding and sealing foods inside a moist, sticky gelatinous layer, as with old-fashioned “ham in aspic,” for example. The brand Knox Gelatin was first produced in 1894 for use in recipes, and it is still available today in the little packets of powder. The Jell-O brand of flavoured, sweetened, packaged gelatin mixes was introduced before the turn of the century but only began to gain popularity in the early 1900s. Knox promoted its brand as a healthier alternative without the added sweeteners, colourings, and flavourings. Gelatin powder is now also sold in bulk in health food stores, and also in capsules as a health supplement.
Although there is little conclusive scientific evidence, gelatin is often credited with a number of health benefits. The most common claim is related to preventing and/or repairing joint degeneration and pain associated with aging, and with some strenuous athletic activities. Since gelatin is derived from collagen, a fibrous protein substance that provides structure to tissues in the body, it is believed that gelatin can also aid in restoring and maintaining the function of these structures, reducing pain, stiffness, and increasing mobility. One of the structures included in gelatin production is cartilage, a lubrication substance that enables joints to move freely without friction or pain, and which typically decreases with age, so this benefit is also attributed to gelatin. Most gelatin sold in supplement form is formulated, often with associated ingredients, to address this issue. Collagen also contributes to healthy skin, hair, and nails, so gelatin is also said to contribute a beneficial effect in this respect.
The amino acids of which gelatin is largely composed, namely proline, glycine, and some arginine, are associated with particular effects. Lysine is valued by body builders as an aid to enhancing muscle growth. Arginine is said to enhance the body’s metabolism, which can be a boon to weight reduction. Glycine helps to detoxify the liver and maintain liver function. It has also been promoted as an aid to better sleep.
In the diet, gelatin is said to have a “protein sparing” effect, which means that it enhances the body’s use of essential amino acids consumed in the diet, especially muscle meats, where it seems to particularly complement the amino acid methionine, making it more available to the body. This means that by consuming gelatin, one could get the same amount of protein benefits while consuming less meat, thereby saving on the grocery budget. In practical terms, this can also be accomplished by accompanying meat dishes with a gravy or sauce that has been made from bone broth, which is another way of obtaining gelatin in the diet.
Gelatin is also, especially in the form of bone broth, associated with improved digestion. It encourages the activity of digestive enzymes in the body, and it helps food to pass more easily through the system. It is also said to help protect and recover from intestinal bugs and food-borne pathogens. An ideal way to take it is in the form of warm broth sipped in small amounts at regular frequent intervals.
As mentioned above, studies on the benefits of gelatin as a nutritional supplement show conflicting evidence, but there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence. Given that gelatin is inexpensive, especially in bulk powdered form, there is very little risk in experimenting with its use and observing the effects. Even better would be to consume substantial and regular amounts of homemade bone broth, which has other synergistic nutritional benefits as well. Note that store-bought broths are not likely to provide the same benefits as they would not have been produced with the same methods and care. It may well be that the benefits of consuming gelatin depend on an individual’s status in regards to the specific amino acids involved.
In commercial food production, gelatin is widely used as a stabilizer, thickener, and texturizer, in products such as cream cheese, yogurt, sour cream, margarine, jams, jellied candy, and marshmallows. It is particularly useful in the food industry as an addition to reduced fat products to give more of the mouth feel of the full fat version. Gelatin is also used in beverage production to help clarify wine, beer, and juices as it has the ability to bind with loose sediments so they can be easily removed.
Other non-food uses for gelatin include the familiar gelatin capsules used to encase medical drugs and food supplements, plant food (dissolve a bit of gelatin in your household plant water for a nitrogen rich boost), and in cosmetics production.
How to Use It, Recipes, and Substitutions
Gelatin can be added to many foods such as smoothies, porridge, soups, stews, and yogurt; for maximum benefit and best results, first dissolve it by stirring it into a small amount of warm liquid, such as water, broth, or fruit juice, depending on what you are adding it to (1 tablespoon gelatin powder per 1/4 cup liquid) until the solid particles disappear. The liquid should become slightly syrupy as the gelatin dissolves, but don’t overheat and let it get too gluey.
Gelatin & Mineral Rich Broth
Use bones obtained from butcher, local pastured meat provider, and/or leftover bones from cooking chicken or any other meat. Place bones, gristle, and any other available parts (chicken feet and necks are excellent) in a large pot or slow cooker. Add enough water to cover. Add a few dashes of apple cider vinegar to help draw the minerals out of the bones and into the water. Slowly bring to simmering point. Keep simmering for at least 24 hours; longer is fine, too. If the bones break or crumble easily, you know the minerals have sufficiently migrated into the water where you want them. Strain into glass jars for storage, for use in soups, stews, cooking grains, etc. The broth will usually “gel” to varying degrees in cold storage, indicating the presence of gelatin.
Note: The above describes the basic method of broth making. You can enhance the flavour by oven roasting the bones first, and by adding vegetable scraps and herbs while simmering the broth.
Homemade Gelatin Dessert
Combine 1 tbsp or 1 envelope plain gelatin powder, dissolved in 1/4 cup any liquid; then add 1-3/4 cup of unsweetened fruit juice, yogurt, coconut milk, or whatever liquid base you want to use. Add natural sweetener as desired. Refrigerate to gel. Add other solid or semi-solid ingredients, such as fruit chunks, cottage cheese, or cream cheese as desired. It’s recommended that solid, chunky ingredients be added after the base is partially gelled in order to keep them evenly distributed.
Avoid adding raw pineapple, kiwi, papaya, or figs to a gelatin-based dish—they contain enzymes that break down the gelatin molecules, rendering it ineffective as a gelling agent. These fruits can however be using in cooked/canned form (such as canned pineapple) without negative impact.
Festive Cranberry Mold
(a beautiful addition to a holiday feast)
2 tbsp gelatin powder
3 cups unsweetened fruit juice (apple, orange, or berry, can also include pineapple juice drained from can)
2 cups thick cranberry sauce (homemade, with natural
sweetener is best)
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 cup unsweetened crushed
1/2 cup finely chopped celery or apple
Dissolve gelatin by stirring it into 1/2 cup gently warmed juice. Stir in cranberry sauce and lemon juice until blended. Gradually stir in remainder of juice. Chill until partially set. Stir in pineapple and celery. Pour into a 6-cup ring mold. Refrigerate until firm. Unmold onto a serving platter.
2 tbsp unsweetened powdered gelatin
1 cup cold water (or broth)
1/2 – 1 cup sour cream
1 cup finely chopped celery
2 green onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh dill
2 cups canned salmon, drained
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp hot sauce
Salt to taste
Dissolve gelatin in 1/2 cup of the water (broth), gently warmed. Add remaining ingredients. Pour into mold and refrigerate to set. Serve as a spread.
Sandra Brandt has had a lifelong interest in whole natural foods. She lives in Regina, where she gives cooking classes, presentations, and dietary consultations. She can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Also see the colour display ad on page 13 of the 18.4 November/December issue of the WHOLifE Journal.