Gelatin is a flavorless, colorless, stabilizer and thickener that is used to make desserts such as pudding, mousse, marshmallows, candy, cakes, ice cream, some yogurts, and of course fruit gelatin, such as Jell-O. Gelatin is also used to make some non-food items such as shampoos or skincare products.
Thickening agents like gelatin can be made from different ingredients. Gelatin is made by boiling the skin, tendons, ligaments, or bones of animals (usually cows or pigs) in water. This process releases collagen, a protein that provides structure and also happens to be the most abundant protein in the human body. After the collagen is extracted it is concentrated and filtered, then cooled, extruded, and dried to make gelatin.
Because animal products are used to make gelatin, it is not a vegan-friendly food and even some non-vegans choose not to consume it to support animal rights. But there are also gelatin alternatives that are made from non-animal sources.
Gelatin Nutrition Facts
The following nutrition information is provided by the USDA for a single envelope or about one-tablespoon (7 grams) of gelatin. However, a full envelope may not always represent a single serving.
According to Knox, a company that makes gelatin, a single serving is more likely to be 1.75 grams. The company states on their website that a single serving provides 6 calories, 0 grams fat, 0 grams carbohydrate, and 1.6 grams of protein. This serving size equals about a 1/2 cup serving when mixed with water.
- Calories: 23.4
- Fat: 0g
- Sodium: 13.7mg
- Carbs: 0g
- Fiber: 0g
- Sugars: 0g
- Protein: 6g
While gelatin provides about 30 calories per tablespoon, none of those calories are from carbohydrates. There are 0 grams of total carbohydrate, including 0 grams of sugar, and 0 grams of fiber in gelatin.
Because gelatin contains no carbohydrates, it will not impact blood sugar levels when consumed. However, it should be noted that gelatin is not usually consumed alone. It is frequently used to thicken dessert foods that can be high in sugar and carbs and are likely to elevate your blood sugar levels. But the presence of gelatin will not change the impact.
There is no fat in a one-tablespoon serving of gelatin. Even a 100-gram serving contains less than a gram of fat.
Gelatin provides about 6 grams of protein per one-tablespoon serving. But remember that you are likely to consume much less than that. If you consume 1.75 grams, you won’t even get a full gram of protein. So gelatin should not be considered a high-protein food
Vitamins and Minerals
Gelatin provides no significant vitamins or minerals. Even if it is consumed in larger quantities than is typical in recipes, the powder does not contribute any significant micronutrients.
People who use gelatin as a food in recipes may not notice any substantial impact on their health by including the ingredient in their diet. It is consumed in such small amounts and in many cases used in foods that aren’t consumed every day. But there are a few studies that have suggested that the use of gelatin may provide certain health benefits. There are also some medical uses for pharmaceutical-grade gelatin that are notable.
Treatment of Diarrhea
Some people use pectin or gelatin to treat diarrhea when they prefer not to take traditional medications or when they don’t want to give medications to their children. The belief is that the gelling agent that helps thicken foods can also help stools to form more effectively. However, the evidence supporting this benefit has been limited and inconsistent.
There have been some studies suggesting that gelatin tannate can reduce chronic diarrhea. Gelatin tannate is gelatin that contains tannic acid. At least one study has found that gelatin tannate in combination with other products (such as probiotics) may be effective. But most studies indicate that further research is needed.
For example, a 2020 review evaluated three studies involving 276 children who were given gelatin tannate for the treatment of diarrhea. Study authors found that there was no difference between gelatin tannate and placebo in the duration of diarrhea, stool frequency at day two, diarrhea at day three, vomiting, or other adverse events.
Gelatin products are sometimes recommended during the treatment of diarrhea along with a liquid diet. But it is not because the gelatin provides any medicinal value, instead this is recommended simply because sometimes it feels good to eat “solid” food when you’re on a liquid diet and gelatin provides a more solid mouthfeel.
Improved Bone Health
Another purported benefit of gelatin is for the protection of bones. But again, high-quality evidence supporting its use is limited.
Some early studies suggested that hydrolyzed gelatin products such as pharmaceutical-grade collagen hydrolysate may help reduce pain in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee or hip. Researchers thought that it may have a beneficial effect on cartilage metabolism. But more recent studies need to be done to confirm this benefit.
Another very small study (involving just eight healthy male subjects) investigated whether or not a gelatin supplement ingested before intermittent physical activity training could boost collagen production to help prevent musculoskeletal injuries. Researchers compared the ingestion of a 5- or 15-gram dose of vitamin C-enriched gelatin versus a placebo.
They found that adding gelatin to an intermittent exercise program improved collagen synthesis and could play a beneficial role in injury prevention and tissue repair. But the study was so small in scope that it would be hard to know if this benefit could translate to a wider population in other circumstances.
Provides Compliant Recipe Alternative
Those following certain specific diets can use gelatin to thicken foods instead of ingredients that are not compliant with their eating plan.
For example, those with wheat allergies or who have celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or who follow a gluten-free diet for other reasons may use other thickeners instead of flour in recipes. Cornstarch is one popular replacement, but gelatin can also be used. Cornstarch thickens when food is heated (like flour), but gelatin thickens when food is cooled.
Gelatin can also be used by those following low-carb or grain-free diets. Adding flour to foods like soups and stews can increase the carbohydrate count (albeit slightly). But gelatin can also be used when you want no carbs added. For instance, some cooks use a ratio of 1 ½ tsp gelatin per cup of stock to thicken soups.
May Reduce Hunger for Weight Loss
There is some limited evidence that a gelatin-based diet may be helpful during weight loss. One study published in The Journal of Nutrition compared a gelatin-based custard diet to a casein-based custard diet. Casein is a complete protein found in milk and dairy products, whereas gelatin is an incomplete protein.
The study involved 30 participants aged between 18 and 55 years old with a BMI between 20 and 33. During the experiment, each participant spent a 36-hour session in a respiration chamber which measures energy expenditure and substrate oxidation. Participants repeated the session four times spaced four weeks apart.
Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age.
Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.
During each of the four sessions, they consumed either a gelatin- or casein-based custard diet. Blood samples, and urine samples were obtained during each session as well as appetite scores to help determine appetite suppression. Appetite scores were measured on a visual analogue scale (VAS)—a measurement instrument that tries to measure a characteristic that includes a range of values and cannot easily be directly measured.
At the end of the experiment, the study authors found that the gelatin-based diet resulted in greater appetite suppression.
Energy expenditure was about the same on both diets and the casein-custard diet did a better job of preserving muscle mass. Study authors concluded that “in terms of weight loss for people with obesity, the greater hunger-suppressing effect of gelatin may play a role in reducing energy intake if this effect is maintained when consuming a gelatin diet in the long term. In addition, long-term use of casein may contribute to the preservation of fat-free mass.”
It’s important to put these findings into context, however. Custard-based diets are not likely to be sustainable for the long-term, and will not provide all of the essential nutrients that you need for a healthy body. However, brands like Knox advise that you may be able to use gelatin to make lower-in-calorie foods.
There are reports of gelatin allergy. In fact, according to the experts at Food Allergy Research and Education, allergy to gelatin is a common cause of an allergic reaction to vaccines, many of which contain pig gelatin as a stabilizer. Published case studies suggest that those who have reactions to vaccines may also test positive in skin tests to several flavored gelatins (e.g., Jell-O), as well unflavored gelatins (Knox). Report authors say that gelatin-related vaccine reactions are rare, but can be life-threatening.
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology also suggests that those with an allergy to beef, cow’s milk, or pork meat may have a higher risk of a gelatin allergy.
Gelatin is affirmed as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Evidence of drug interactions is lacking.
The flavorless, colorless gelatin that you find in the baking aisle of your local grocery store comes in one variety, for the most part (although there are also flavored gelatin products, like Jell-O).
Gelatin products are made by extracting collagen from the connective tissue of animals, but manufacturers often don’t disclose what type of animal bones were used. However, there are a few brands that disclose more information about the animals to help customers who uphold certain religious practices and traditions.
For instance, some people refrain from eating foods derived from pigs, such as those who only choose kosher or halal foods. Since many gelatin products are derived from pigs, these foods would not be compliant. But there are some beef gelatins that are made from slaughtered kosher meat that would be compliant. If the ingredients list is not specific, you can look for the kosher label on the product.
There are also non-meat gelatin alternatives. These include:
- Agar-agar also called “agar” this thickener is derived from cooked, pressed seaweed. This gelling agent is available online and in some supermarkets in flaked form, powdered form, or in bars. When cooking with it, substitute agar-agar for gelatin using equal amounts if using the powdered form. If you’re using flakes, a tablespoon is equal to about a teaspoon of the powder. Certain citrus fruits require more agar-agar when substituting for gelatin in recipes. And agar-agar is not the best gelling agent for recipes that include uncooked mangoes, papaya, and pineapple.
- Pectin is a gelling agent that is found naturally in plants, especially apples and citrus fruits. Food manufacturers use pectin to make some types of yogurt and confectionery products. It is also used to enhance the mouthfeel of fruit-based beverages and can be used at home to thicken jams, jellies, and other foods.
- Carrageen is also derived from seaweed. Also called Irish moss, this thickener is usually best for making softer gels and puddings.
When It’s Best
Gelatin is available year-round in the baking section of grocery stores. You can also purchase from many online stores.
Storage and Food Safety
Gelatin should be kept in a sealed container and stored in a cool, dry place. According to the USDA, it should stay fresh for about three years when unopened and stored properly. Gelatin should not be frozen.
How to Prepare
The way that you use gelatin may depend in part on the type of recipe you’re using it in. In general, however, when using a basic gelatin packet, you start by pouring the packet into a bowl that contains about 1/4 cup of cold water or other liquid. Let it stand for one minute so that the granules separate. Then add another 1/4 cup of boiling water and stir until the granules are completely dissolved.
If you are making a sweetened thickener, add two tablespoons of sugar to the cold water mixture when you add the granules. Then add a half cup of boiling water (instead of 1/4 cup), stir and dissolve.
Some recipes may require that you thicken foods that are heated on the stove. If this is the case, you still add the granules to cold water, but you’ll use a saucepan instead of a bowl. Let it sit for a minute then heat the pan on low heat for about three minutes, stirring constantly until dissolved. Gelatin can also be dissolved using a blender or in the microwave.
If you are not following a specific recipe, but simply making a mold with fruit or other ingredients, you’ll add the ingredients after the dissolving process and pour into a mold. Small metal molds generally chill faster than larger molds or glass molds. Chilling times vary but can take 20 to 45 minutes depending on the recipe.