Animal-Free Gelatin?

Background: What is Gelatin?

Gelatin (or Gelatine in British spelling) is a common ingredient in many foods[1]. As noted on Wikipedia, Gelatin is an irreversibly hydrolyzed form of collagen, in which the protein fibrils are broken down into  smaller peptides. Found in powder, granules or (mostly in professional and industrial applications) sheets, gelatin is used in desserts (most famously in Jello®), gummy candies, candy corn, fruit snacks, and marshmallows. It is a common ingredient in many dairy foods such as cream cheese, ice creams, whipped cream, dips, yogurts, ice creams, and margarine, particularly in low fat variations where it substitutes for the mouthfeel of fat. [2] It is also used by makers of wine, beer, hard cider, fruit juice, and vinegar to clarify the liquids (remove cloudiness).  The collagen that forms the basis for gelatin is derived from the skin, bones and connective tissues of animals. It can come from kosher animals, such as cattle, deer, chickens, or sheep, non-kosher mammals, such as pigs or historically horses, or from fish, both kosher and non-kosher species. Most culinary gelatins are derived from collagen obtained by processing hides, either bovine (cattle) or porcine (pig). According to General Foods, Jello®-brand dessert gelatin is derived from pig skins.[3]

Gelatin and Kosher

For persons observing kosher laws, gelatin can be obtained from fish or kosher slaughtered cattle.[4] Fish gelatin is used for products like marshmallows, but for dairy products, a limited quantity of kosher gelatin (made from kosher slaughtered cattle in South America) is used (since the gelatin is made from inedible skins, it is considered pareve). According to the Orthodox Union, the cost and limited production quantity makes it unsuitable for use in mass market products made outside of Israel (there are similar products for halal consumers). More commonly, substitutes that are acceptable for kosher consumers are vegetarian/vegan alternatives made from sea vegetables, such as agar and carrageenan, and these are found in many products that would otherwise use gelatin. However, these products behave differently than animal gelatin and the food industry is looking for a non-animal-sourced gelatin that acts equivalent to animal sourced.

“Biodesigned” Collagen

Food scientists are producing products that are the biological equivalent of animal proteins without raising and slaughtering animals. Some produce muscle or fat tissues by culturing stem cells taken from animals. But there is another was to produce proteins: coax yeast or other microorganisms to produce the desired product. Alternative dairy producers get yeasts to make real dairy proteins, for example. Sometimes referred to as “biodesign”, this holds promise for producing gelatin that is both vegan and chemically identical to animal gelatin.

There are several companies working to develop  products that could replace meat and dairy products, including gelatin. One such company is San Francisco-based Geltor. I recently spoke at length with Erin Kim, Geltor’s Communications Director. Kim told me that while Geltor’s initial products targeted the beauty and personal care industry, they recently introduced PrimaColl®, the first animal-free collagen for food and beverages. Made through a microbial fermentation process it is identical to poultry collagen, it is certified kosher by the OU and is also halal. Unlike some cell cultured products, they do not start with cells taken from animals.

Geltor’s co-founders Alex Lorestani, and Nick Ouzounov. always wanted to produce a product for the food industry, but started in personal care as a way to test and commercialize their product. The hope is to reach all markets where consumers are using products multiple times a day around the world. Since collagen-based products, including gelatin, are used in so many different products, the potential impact for the kosher market is significant.

PrimaColl® is not gelatin, but a type 21 collagen. Collagen is an added-value additive in beverages, coffee creamers, snacks, energy bars, and supplements. Kim explained that many people believe that by adding Type 21 collagen to one’s diet, there may be benefits, such as signaling to the body to increase its natural production of collagen (lack of collagen contributes to the visible effects of aging, such a wrinkles). Ingesting of collagen is also believed by athletes to aide on sports recovery. Collagen supplements are generally recognized as safe, though the alleged benefits need further study. Nonetheless, the market by 2027 is estimated to be over $7 billion. Although collagen is the source material for gelatin, and it would be possible to make gelatin using this process at some point, Geltor is not marketing a gelatin product at this time.

Geltor is working with smaller brands and larger multi-national brands to use its product. PrimaColl™ is a high-value, premium product that delivers a better performance than many others on the market. As such, it demands a premium price over mass market gelatin. However, in the future we may see animal-free gelatin in more and more products. It also may become an ingredient in vegan products, where it is a better option than seaweed-derived alternatives, since animal gelatin is not even an option.  

Geltor’s revolutionary product is a crucial first step forward to getting the food industry to adopt animal-free collagens, including, ultimately, a true gelatin that is vegan and pareve. As we see the rapid progress in products produced through cellular agriculture, the promise for uncompromising kosher pareve and vegan equivalents to animal products is getting closer to realization.

[1] It is also used in many cosmetics and medications, in photography, glues, matches, sandpaper, certain art papers such as crepe paper and playing cards, and in some biotechnology applications.

[2] Although not as common today as they were in the 1950s and 1960s, gelatin is also a key ingredient is vegetable and meat aspics, considered a very upscale dish at one time. IT is still used in certain terrines.

[3] Many products, including Jello®-brand gelatin, and several popular brands of yogurt have a plain “K” and list “kosher gelatin” as an ingredient. However, this is misleading. While there are rabbinic opinions that all gelatin is considered kosher, since it is so chemically changed from its origins that it does not matter that it came from a non-kosher source—either a non-kosher species or a kosher species not slaughtered in accordance with the law—this is not the normative Jewish law in North America, in most communities in Europe, or in many communities in Israel. Very few kosher or halal observing consumers will purchase any such product.

[4] In Israel, bovine gelatin sold to consumers as a kosher product may be obtained from non-kosher slaughtered cattle, and different communities use or abstain from using it. Fish gelatin is also available. Porcine gelatin is not sold as kosher in Israel as it is in the US.

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