What Is Gelatin?

Rainbow Gelatin
Gelatin is used in desserts. Andrea/Flickr/CC 2.0

Gelatin is a clear, tasteless protein used to thicken or solidify food products. It is an animal product and is not vegan. Gelatin is also used in personal care products, cosmetics, drug capsules, and photography. It is popularly known as the base of gelatin desserts.

Where Does Gelatin Come From?

Gelatin is derived from the collagen found in the bones, connective tissue, and skin of pigs, cattle, and other animals.

Collagen from fish bones is also sometimes used. This protein dissolves out of bone and connective tissue when they are boiled in water. This is what happens when you make stock at home with bones -- the collagen is extracted into the stock and it sets up when cooled. Gelatin used for culinary purposes is purified and is usually sold in sheets, granules, or powder.

How Is Gelatin Used?

Gelatin is used to thicken puddings, yogurt, gummy candies, fruit gelatin desserts, ice cream, marshmallows, and more. Gelatin must first be dissolved in warm water before adding to a recipe. After dissolving in water, gelatin can then be mixed into any number of liquids or semi-solid mixtures.

Packets of gelatin sold in most grocery stores typically contain a quarter ounce, or one tablespoon, of gelatin powder. This amount of gelatin is enough to thicken approximately two cups of liquid, although more can be used to produce a more rigid end product.

Gelatin solidifies when cooled and generally requires refrigeration. The concentration and grade of gelatin will determine the exact temperature at which it solidifies and melts. Most gelatins have a melting point near body temperature, which provides a unique mouthfeel to the food in which it is used.

Boiling gelatin can break down its structure and ruin its solidifying properties. Certain fruits, such as pineapple, guava, and papaya, contain enzymes can also inhibit gelatins ability to solidify. The canning process typically destroys these enzymes, which means canned versions of these fruits can be successfully used with gelatin.

Nutritional Content of Gelatin

Gelatin is a protein, but it only contains nine of the ten essential amino acids, which means it is not considered a complete protein. Pure gelatin powder contains no carbohydrates or fats, only protein. A one-ounce packet of gelatin powder contains approximately 23 calories and six grams of protein.

Gelatin mixtures, such as Jell-O desserts or aspics made with broth, are often counted as fluid intake when diets are being analyzed, due to the high amount of water suspended in the gel and the fact that the mixture is a liquid at body temperature.

Gelatin and Special Diets

Because gelatin is made from animal collagen, it is not suitable for vegetarian or vegan diets. Alternatives to gelatin, such as agar-agar, pectin, or carrageenan are made from plant products and provide a similar gelling action.

Gelatin marked with a "K" has been certified kosher and is made from sources other than pigs.

For religions that don't allow consumption of cattle products, gelatin made from only pork or fish can be used. Be sure to read the package closely, or contact the manufacturer if the source of the gelatin is of concern.