What’s tasteless, colorless, transparent when cooked, and hidden in everything from protein shakes to gummy candies? The answer is gelatin. But did you know that gelatin is made from animal skin and bones? It’s not only non-vegan, but it’s not even vegetarian. Because of gelatin, most jello, marshmallows, and gummy bears are off the table for vegetarians and vegans. Luckily there are several vegan gelatin alternatives today!
This cheap and abundant particularly unpleasant source of protein has found its way into candy, household products, and even cosmetics recent years. Before you stock up on powders, granules, and gelatin sheets, you should know that there’s more to gelatin than meets the eye.
So…what is gelatin made from? A byproduct of industrial meat processing, gelatin is made from various animal parts, including bones, hooves, skin, tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue. Essetially: slaughterhouse scraps. Gross? Yeah, we know. That’s why you’ll often find gelatin plants located near slaughterhouses.
You can make gelatin from almost any mammals (including humans, although luckily we’ve escaped that fate). The most common animals used for gelatin include pigs, cows, and even horses.
Gelatin is derived from collagen, which is high in protein, giving it a “health halo,” although most consumers don’t realize that ingesting collagen isn’t even remotely as effective as building it yourself. This is done through by eating a diet rich in vitamin C, zinc, and copper, or supplementing to fill the gaps.
From an industrial standpoint, gelatin has been an essential building block of many processed foods for its unique gelling and binding properties. It’s what creates the chewy texture in conventional marshmallows, gummy candies, Jell-o desserts, and more.
To put a fine point on it, no, gelatin is not vegetarian or vegan. It always comes directly from animal sources, whether it’s cows, pigs, horses, or fish. Unlike meat, gelatin can be easy to miss because it doesn’t present as pieces of flesh, but it has the equivalent weight when it comes to loss of life. Those colorful candies and desserts hold deathly secrets.
Brace yourself — the process for how gelatin is made is not pretty. You know how we said that gelatin comes from animal hide, tissues, and bones? Well, those animal parts are boiled, dried, treated with a strong acid or base, filtered, and collagen is extracted.
Gelatin can then be sold directly to manufacturing companies, or directly to consumer in the form of gelatin powder and gelatin sheets.
Get your magnifying glasses out and let’s examine some labels!
The frustrating thing about gelatin is that it often shows up where you least expect it, and since it’s not one of the top allergens, manufacturers can hide it within the list of ingredients without calling attention to the fact. Common places you may find gelatin include…
Several of these may come as a shock to you. We didn’t realize matchsticks had gelatin until we researched for this article, and just learned about photographic film a few years ago. Here are even more things you may not realize aren’t vegan.
When in doubt, always email or call the manufacturers of these products to get definitive answers. Especially in products that aren’t directly consumed, gelatin may not appear anywhere on the label, even if it’s used in processing.
The trouble with replacing gelatin is that there’s no perfect 1:1 substitute. The closest thing we have is agar, also known as agar agar powder, which comes from seaweed.
Agar works effectively at making gels from liquid at the same ratio, but the texture has a short, rather than chewy or bouncy, bite. In Japanese, it might be referred to as kanten, which is also the word for a lightly sweetened dessert made with it.
Agar can be used in conjunction with carrageenan, pectin, carob bean gum, or locust bean gum to come closer to the same textural experience. These ingredients aren’t as readily available for home cooks, of course, which presents a challenge when trying to veganize traditional recipes.
Conventional Jell-o is not vegan, but plant-based gelatin mixes are available for purchase if you want a classic Jell-o dessert or a more adult Jell-o shot. Simply Delish is the most common brand found in the US, both in stores and online, producing sugar-free fruit-flavored blends that are quick cook ing like traditional boxed options.
Here are several other ingredients that are commonly used to replicate the qualities of gelatin, but without using animals.
Thanks to the wonderful world of vegan food bloggers and plant-based companies springing to life, finding vegan versions of your favorite gelatin-based products is getting easier every day. You can find hundreds of vegan gummy bear and gummy candy recipes online. Plus, brands like Annie’s, The Gummy Project, and Better Bears make store-bought options.
Here are some vegan gelatin-free recipes to try…
Homemade Vegan Jello is easy, healthy, kid-friendly, and optionally sugar-free! You can use any fruit juice you like to change up the flavors and colors. Use more agar to make sliceable “jigglers” or less for softer pudding-like cups.
Panna cotta is an Italian dessert made from custard molded and plated with some sort of sauce. It’s typically made from a base of cream, eggs, and gelatin, but Vegan Panna Cotta keeps it cruelty-free!
Don’t show up to your next camping trip empty handed. The BEST Vegan Marshmallows are within your reach! Gelatin-free marshmallows can be found in many mainstream markets these days. The brand Dandies is the most widely accessible, and you can even get them on Amazon. But these have the edge on store-bought options because there’s no animal products nor high-fructose corn syrup in these fluffy white vanilla squares either.
Be the life of the party when you bring Vegan Jello Shots for everyone (21 years and older!) to enjoy. But beware, I’ve tried making vegan jello shots many times and it’s a delicate art. They don’t always turn out and even when they do, they don’t taste like classic jello shots.
Gelatin is the secret to making traditional xiao long bao, otherwise known as soup dumplings. The only way you can find a vegan version is to make them yourself. These Vegan Soup Dumplings look like a truly satisfying project that every foodie should try at least once.
Many people conflate “kosher” with “vegan,” which is sometimes but not always true. In this case, it’s most definitely not; kosher gelatin is simply bones and the processed byproduct of kosher species of fish. Generally kosher gelatin is also halal, but that’s irrelevant to the vegan conversation. This means it’s compliant with religious dietary restrictions, not ethical vegan standards.
Slapping the label of “USDA-Certified Organic” means nothing for ethical implications of gelatin. When it comes to animals, that only means they’ve been raised in living conditions that can accommodate their natural behaviors (such as the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed, and not administered antibiotics or hormones. This should be the bare minimum for any creature’s existence, and still says nothing about how they’re ultimately slaughtered. Organic gelatin is still just as cruel as conventional gelatin.
We hope you found this vegan gelatin guide helpful. If we missed anything, please feel free to leave additional notes or gelatin facts in the comments below. Many thanks to Hannah Kaminsky for her help with this article. Agar photo from Canva, other photos by Michelle Cehn. Art by Jeanne Ee Wei Yen. This article may contain affiliate links that support our work at World of Vegan at no extra cost to you. Thanks for stopping by, and we hope to see you again!