Gelatin: Worth the hype?
If you’ve been watching the trends in the Paleo / real food world lately, you may have noticed that gelatin seems to be the Bulletproof® coffee of 2014. It’s showing up in all sorts of recipes and posts from gummies to coffee. (I guess we’ve recovered from the aspic monstrosities of decades past.) But is it really worth the hype and your money? We’ll take a look at what it is, the benefits and the foods you can find it in so you can decide for yourself.
What is gelatin?
Simply put, gelatin is a protein derived from collagen that is soluble in water. Collagen is a type of connective tissue found only in animals, and gelatin is obtained from cooking down this connective tissue. If you’ve ever roasted meat only to find jelly-like drippings at the bottom of the pan once it’s cooled, that’s gelatin. Purified gelatin—available in powdered or granulated form or in sheets—is made from commercially processing and purifying connective tissue.
All proteins are made up of amino acids, but the composition of gelatin is a bit different than the average because it contains high amounts of the non-essential amino acids glycine and proline relative to other proteins. (And that’s a good thing, because these amino acids are important building blocks for connective tissue.) Now, before you go thinking that you can use gelatin to replace your intake of animal muscle meat or eggs, remember that those foods are rich in essential amino acids that your body cannot manufacture. Therefore, I tend to think of gelatin as a supplement to a diet with good protein intake.
Research has shown gelatin can improve the quality of nails (source) and hair (source) as well as ease achy or arthritic joints (source). Gelatin is also renowned as a traditional food, and its reputation for soothing the digestive tract and, being relatively easy for the body to process, is highly revered as a dietary supplement.
What Forms Can You Find Gelatin In?
As a powdered supplement, gelatin is often found in two forms: purified regular gelatin and hydrolyzed collagen—also called collagen hydrolysate. The differences are described below. Purified gelatin must be allowed to “bloom” in warm water or other liquid before using in recipes. This allows the protein to rehydrate and associate with water molecules, dissolving it. Care must be taken not to boil the gelatin which causes the proteins to denature; the gelatin will not set. Also, certain fruits such as pineapple and kiwi contain proteolytic enzymes which denature the proteins as well. If you want to make something like fruit gummies (these from Meatified are so good), you must use a purified gelatin that is not hydrolyzed or it’ll never gel. (Where to find high quality purified gelatin from beef (kosher) or porcine sources).
Helpful hint: The longer firmed gelatin sits, the more rubbery it becomes—some of the water that keeps the colloid structure hydrated evaporates. Pretty sure it goes without saying around these parts, but the J-e-l-l-o of our youth, rammed with sugar and artificial flavors and colors, is NOT the ideal way to get more gelatin into your diet.
I like this source because the gelatin is from grass-fed cows. If you remember your biochemistry, you’ll know that the benefit of grass-fed animals is really in the fat profile, of which gelatin has none. So why buy grass-fed gelatin? Sustainability. If quality isn’t something that matters to you and cost is, there are other less expensive brands in most supermarkets. Helpful hint: 1 Tablespoon of gelatin will firm two cups (one pint) of liquid.
Hydrolyzed collagen (hydrolysis essentially means the breakdown of something into its component parts by adding water molecules back to the structure) will not gel…ever. So if you’re looking for gelatin to add to your morning coffee or some other application where gelling isn’t an issue, this might be for you. (Where to find high quality hydrolyzed collagen)
If taking gelatin or hydrolyzed collagen as a supplement, most companies recommend a dose of 1 Tablespoon per day. (Remember, I’m not a doctor.)
Some folks are uncomfortable using gelatin because, even when it’s high quality, it’s still a processed food. The gelatin must be extracted and purified from animal collagen, using chemical methods. If you’d rather not use purified gelatin, the good news is that you can still get it from one very simple and economical food: bone broth…a.k.a. soup stock.
Bone Broth: A Natural Source of Gelatin
If the idea of purified gelatin supplements skeebs you out, the good news is that you can still get gelatin in your diet in a natural and very economical way—by making soup stocks or bone broths. (If you’re like my uncle Eric, you can eat the cartilage off the end of chicken drumsticks. Not so much? Read on.)
Making broths or stocks will provide you with an economical source of gelatin—you’d normally toss the bones out—and involves no chemical treatment or purification. I personally like to use bones with a bit of meat on them, like the carcass of a chicken, because the flavor is better and it tends to yield more gelatin. Scrap cuts like chicken backs, leftovers like skin and even more “exotic” ingredients like feet are great at making gelatin-rich broth. More of a beef fan? Knuckle bones with some of the cartilage intact work well, but many people find beef broth to be a much stronger (read: not as tasty) flavor. Personal preference will dictate your choice.
If you make homemade broth, there are some best practices to follow to get it to gel when it cools. Click here to read how to make your broth gel. My favorite method for homemade broth is to throw the bones from 2 chickens in a crock pot, fill with water to cover the bones, add a splash of apple cider vinegar (this helps to draw out the bone minerals) and let it cook for 24 hours on low. No minding. No stirring.
I hope this post has answered your questions about whether adding a gelatin supplement to your diet—or just making bone broth more often—is right for you. Knowledge is power!