Have you ever been captivated by the sight of brightly coloured, intricately shaped, and jiggly lumps of Jell-O? Well, we all have been there. However, what most are unaware of is the rather unexpected and somewhat unsettling source of the item that gives the Jell-O its wondrous shape and form.
Introducing gelatin, an animal protein which has gel-forming properties used mainly in food products, cosmetics, and other industrial applications. It is derived from collagen; a protein found in animal skins, tendons, ligaments, and bones. To explain this more succinctly; if you ever grill or roast a whole chicken on a tray, you will notice thick liquid that turns into jelly once it’s cooled down. This is gelatin.
Its most common use is as a gelling agent in jellies, candies, ice creams and marshmallows. It is also used to make shampoos, face masks, and other cosmetics. It also finds use in the production of capsules for various medical applications.
How Is Gelatin Made?
As mentioned earlier, gelatin is essentially obtained by boiling various animal parts such as bones, tendons, skins, and ligaments. For the benefit of our readers, we will break this process down:
- In the first step, the raw materials are sorted, cleaned and cut into small pieces for ease of handling.
- Next, the animal parts are boiled in hot water for several hours. The water and collagen mixture is then filtered and cooled, allowing the liquid to solidify into a jelly-like substance.
- The jelly is now purified by washing and drying it several times as needed. This removes any remaining tissues and fat.
- Then the purified collagen is ground into powder and packaged for distribution.
Gelatin can also be created synthetically by using chemical agents and enzymes to break down collagen. However, this process is costlier and not as efficient. Point to be noted, while the fundamental production process of gelatin is the same anywhere you go, there can be variations in the process depending on the user’s requirements and the specifics of the end product.
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Types of Gelatin
Most gelatin products come in the form of powder and sheet; the powdered gelatin is made by dehydrating the collagen. Once it is cleaned and purified, it is broken into small pieces and heated further to extract the gelatin. The extract is then cooled and dried either through drum drying or spray drying to create a powder. This powder is sifted and checked for any remaining impurities before it is packed and sent to retail stores.
Gelatin sheets are made through a similar process as powdered gelatin, but with few key differences. Once the gelatin is extracted and cleaned, it is treated to remove any impurities and broken into smaller pieces. Instead of being dried into a powder, the solid gelatin is cut into sheets which are then dried to remove any moisture. The sheets are then packed and stored ready for use. Gelatin has higher gelling consistency and is perfect for more delicate recipes such as pastry and confectionaries.
What Makes Gelatin Useful?
Here’s a list of key properties gelatin possesses which make it useful for various industries that include food, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical among others.
- Gelling ability: The most important and evident property of gelatin makes it useful for thickening liquids and solidifying them into the gel. This property is affected by temperature, pH, and the presence of other substances.
- Solubility: Gelatin is hydrophilic, meaning it absorbs water and retains it. It can be dissolved in hot water and can be solidified once it is cooled.
- Nutritional value: It is a good source of protein since it comes from animal parts. It also contains small amounts of collagen, glycine, and proline.
- Elasticity: The solid gel is flexible, which means it can bend to a certain degree without breaking. This property is what makes marshmallows, jellies and gummies a hit with children.
- Transparent: Gelatin is mostly clear making it useful for making colourful and vibrant food products and also cosmetics.
- Flavourless: Since gelatin is flavourless and odourless, it serves well as a food additive and is also used in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries.
- Thermo-reversible: It can be heated and turned into liquid and then again cooled to form a gel without losing any of its properties.
While the uses of gelatin are many, one particular industry that cannot do without it is the pharmaceutical industry. It is an indispensable part of capsule production which is used to hold the encapsulated drug. It firmly holds the drug and disintegrates safely once it is consumed while also masking any poor taste and odour of the drug.
Any Known Side-Effects
Gelatin is a naturally sourced animal by-product. It is a source of protein which come from animal parts consumed by us regularly in the form of meat. Hence, if you are a non-vegetarian and have been eating meat, chances are you will not get any side effects from gelatin. That being said, there are certain concerns or negative symptoms that may arise in people with a weak immune system or a history of allergies. This includes:
- Breathing difficulty
Point to be noted, gelatin can react with certain medications such as blood thinners. Please consult a doctor if you have concerns over this.
In the case of powder gelatin, it needs to be stored in an airtight container and kept at room temperature away from direct sunlight. The unflavoured variant usually has a shelf life of 2-4 years since it is free from any additives. In the case of ones with additives and other ingredients, their shelf life is approximately half or less. Either way, once the pack is opened, it’s best advised to finish either of the variants within a year.
When it comes to gelatin sheets, they should be kept in an airtight container and protected from moisture and sunlight. Unopened packages usually have a shelf life of 2 years. Please note, these sheets are hydrated, which means it needs to be used at the soonest as the gelling properties will degrade eventually. For best results, use it between 6-12 months.
Since gelatin is not vegan or vegetarian friendly, an alternative becomes a must for them considering its wide application particularly for preparing food items, whether it’s for domestic or commercial purposes.
The good news for vegetarians is that vegetarian gelatin does exist. Instead of animal parts, it uses vegetable gums and seaweed extracts for production. That being said, it is not as common as the regular variant. Vegetarians could also substitute gelatin with agar agar, pectin or vegan gel while cooking. Vegetarian gelatin is made from seaweed that is boiled to extract the gel, pressed, and dried. These solid extract is then either blended into a powder or frozen into sheets.