Food / Lifestyle / Research

The truth behind gelatin

Being a vegetarian isn’t easy. Food labels are becoming increasingly difficult to decipher. Names like rennet, gelatin, emulsifier, stabiliser, gelling agent – all meaningless to the average consumer. So which of these foreign words should concern a vegetarian? All of them! Everyone of these seemingly harmless words are all euphemisms for the animal by-product most commonly referred to as gelatin.

Gelatin (or bovine) is a food protein derived from mammalian skin and bone. It is made through a process of heating collagen in the skin, bones, and connective tissue of animals until it slowly breaks down into gelatin and is used as a setting agent in liquids and jellies. It is an odorless, colourless substance and hides itself behind the food labeling code E441.

Because of its insipid characteristics it can be used in just about anything – from yoghurts to milkshakes and cakes, and even in cheese. What’s even more worrying is the fact that gelatin is not only found in food, but cosmetic and medical products as well. According to Dr. Bernard Cole, former food scientist at Gelatine R&D, approximately 60% of gelatin is used in food preparation, 20% in pharmaceutical manufacturing (the coatings of tablets being a major use), 15% in photographic use and the remainder for other non-food uses.

There are undoubtedly wide ranges of meat-free products available at most local supermarkets which provide an affordable and nutrient-rich alternative from your packaged meats. However, there is much controversy surrounding these food labels. If you already knew about these uncertainties, then great – if not, then you may want to rethink your eating plans for your next veg-friendly braai with friends.

Gelatine is a pervasive ingredient in many of our everyday products, there are alternatives but most of which come at a much higher production cost. Glycerol occurs naturally in plants and can do the same things gelatin can do. However if you happen to see one of our familiar euphemisms on a bar of soap for example, chances are it’s not the animal-friendly additive.

Allergic reactions to gelatine are almost completely unknown and when observed the allergic reactions are invariably mild. So there are no health issues at stake here, in fact gelatin is a rich source of protein and has been found to be mostly beneficial in helping balance ones diet. In a mixed diet gelatine has the advantages of adding the essential acids, found in meat, to ones diet – without having to include beef or chicken in a salad, thereby being very beneficial in helping balance a vegetarian diet.

A lot of people turn to vegetarianism for a variety of reasons, including health benefits, religious convictions, and sometimes just because it’s more affordable. But mostly vegetarians are highly concerned for the animal’s well-being. Therefore, adding gelatin to a vegetarian diet may defeat the point entirely – as there is no change in the ethical treatment of the animal from slaughterhouse to laboratory.

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