What Is Gelatin and Why Should You Eat It?
First things first.
What is Gelatin?
Gelatin is a culinary ingredient used in home and professional kitchens for both sweet and savory dishes.
It is made from animal bones and completely flavorless, and when cooled, it thickens to a jelly-like substance. At the grocery store, you’ll find it in packets, as powdered gelatin, which, when mixed with hot water, serves as the gelatinous base for gelatin products such as fruit gelatin dessert (also known as Jell-O), gummy bears, marshmallows, some cream cheeses, ice creams, and dips. It also acts as a thickener for savory sauces and soups.
Gelatin has a host of unique health benefits and is the main constituent of bone broth, an increasingly popular food among holistic health aficionados and paleo eaters. In a well-cooked batch of bone broth, it’s gelatin that causes the liquid to gel once it cools in the refrigerator. We know that bone broth claims a host of health benefits – how many of those benefits stem directly from its gelatin content? Let’s break it down.
Is Gelatin the Same as Collagen?
A quick Google search will reveal a number of different answers to this question, so we’ll try to simplify it as much as possible with some brief definitions.
Collagen is a structural protein in all animals and is the most plentiful protein in the body. It’s required for healthy bones, hair, skin, and nails, and plays a role in forming just about every type of animal tissue. In its raw form, collagen isn’t ideal for consumption – think chicken gristle – and needs to be processed before we can enjoy eating it.
Gelatin is a processed form of collagen. We say that well-made bone broth is full of gelatin because the process of boiling animal bones for a long period of time breaks the collagen down into gelatin. Make sense? So while they aren’t exactly the same substance, you can’t really have gelatin without collagen. Think of gelatin as the processed form of raw animal collagen. We’ll use these two terms interchangeably throughout this post.
Note: You may have seen collagen hydrolysate or hydrolyzed collagen in the protein powder section of your local health foods store. This form of collagen is even further processed, which we know can be a bit confusing. If you’d like to learn more about this type of collagen, check out our post that explains it all.
Building Blocks of Gelatin: Amino Acids
Gelatin is made up of over 20 key amino acids, the most plentiful of which are glycine, proline, alanine, arginine, and hydroxyproline (a metabolite of proline) (1). While all of these amino acids are the building blocks of protein in our bodies, they also each contain unique health benefits.
- Glycine has been shown to offer gut-healing benefits, improve sugar metabolism, and increase the production of gastric acids during digestion (2, 3).
- Proline is critical in the construction of a healthy skin matrix, wound healing, and relieving joint pain. When combined with vitamin C, it metabolizes into a more useful form, called hydroxyproline. While both of these are considered non-essential amino acids (meaning that the body can make them on its own), it’s difficult for the body to produce sufficient amounts without eating adequate protein or supplementing (3).
- Alanine is used in medical treatment of low blood sugar and in preventing hypoglycemia overnight, and while there’s insufficient evidence as yet, it’s also potentially helpful in ameliorating diarrhea-related dehydration, stress, fatigue, and other conditions (4).
- Arginine offers a number of healing properties. It can improve heart conditions by relaxing and opening arteries, promotes wound healing, facilitates kidney detoxification, and maintains hormonal and immune function (5).
Gelatin and Gut Health
We mentioned that glycine has a positive effect on digestion and gut health, but studies show that gelatin as a whole offers anti-inflammatory properties, especially in the gut lining (6). The GI tract plays a critical role in a healthy immune system. To adequately fight off invaders, the body produces cytokines – proinflammatory compounds that aid in killing off harmful microbes. But when the body is out of balance, these compounds can become too plentiful, setting off a cascade of harmful inflammation that ends up doing more bad than good.
We know that inflammation is implicated in a host of diseases, both in the digestive tract and throughout the body, so keeping inflammation in check is critical to good health. Gelatin has been shown to inhibit proinflammatory molecules like cytokines, protecting the gut from inflammatory bowel conditions and the rest of our bodies from allergies, autoimmunity, and other inflammation-related diseases (6).
Gelatin and Skin Health
Ingesting gelatin can have both direct and indirect effects on skin health. We know that, as we age, our bodies produce less and less collagen, which can mean a number of things for our outward appearance and internal health. Collagen is responsible for skin suppleness and elasticity, so as it diminishes, our skin begins to sag and wrinkle. You’ve likely seen makeup and skincare products tout the benefits of collagen in their products, but unfortunately, there’s no evidence that topical use has any effect on skin health. Ingesting collagen, however, can increase naturally occuring gelatin and collagen in the body.
We’ve also mentioned gut health a number of times, and there’s a well-established connection between gut health and skin health. Many skin disorders, including acne, rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis (the last of which is an autoimmune disease – a result of excessive inflammation) can be improved or ameliorated with a gut-healing protocol. Therefore, using gelatin for gut health can have a direct impact on skin health.
As you might have guessed by now, there is no vegetarian source of collagen or gelatin. In the kitchen, however, there are some adequate gelatin substitutes, such as agar agar and apple pectin. Agar agar is derived from algae and is used in desserts and Japanese cooking, while apple pectin (or pectin from other fruits) is used to thicken jellies and jams. Neither of these gelatin alternatives provides comparable health benefits to gelatin derived from animal parts, but they create similar culinary effects when used properly.
If you’re vegetarian, the most effective way to reap the benefits of gelatin is to maximize your body’s ability to make its own collagen. Eat foods rich in the building blocks of collagen, such as dairy products, eggs, leafy greens (like kale), beans, peppers, citrus, broccoli, and beans, just to name a few.
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