What Is Gelatin? (What’s It Made Of + How It’s Made)

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!
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Gelatin is a 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 gelatin powders, granules, and gelatin sheets, you should know that there’s more to gelatin than meets the eye.

What Is Gelatin?

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.

Red cube of jello balancing on a fork.
Jello and Gelatin Cover Photo Source: Canva.com

Is Gelatin Vegetarian? Is Gelatin Vegan?

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. There are vegetarian gelatin alternatives, like Agar Agar, which you can read about below.

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.

How is Gelatin Made?

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.

The Gelatin Making Process

  1. Animals enter a slaughterhouse, are slaughtered, and their bones, tissues, and skins are sent to the gelatin facility.
  2. Animal remains arrive at gelatin facility. Rotted parts are discarded and the rest are sent through massive machines that chop the animal remains into tiny parts
  3. The pieces are then sprayed with extremely high pressure water to clean them.
  4. The animal bits are then bathed in hot water to remove the fat and grease (“degreasing”).
  5. They’re then sent through a massive oven that dries and roasts them for a half an hour at about 200°F
  6. Next are the vats of acid (or alkali) where the animal remains will soak for around 5 days to remove bacteria and enable the collagen to be released.
  7. They are then boiled while the plant workers use a tool to suck off the gelatin-containing liquid parts.
  8. The gelatinous liquid is flash-heat sterilized for a few seconds, the liquid is piped through filters to separate out the gelatin, it goes though evaporator machines to produce solid gelatin.
  9. The gelatin is passed through machines that press it into gelatin sheets (which can be further ground into a gelatin powder).

Gelatin can then be sold directly to manufacturing companies, or directly to consumer in the form of gelatin powder and gelatin sheets.

What Are Sneaky Products That Contain Gelatin?

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…

Foods That Sometimes Contain Gelatin

  • Gummies and chewy candies
  • Jell-o desserts and aspics, puddings, yogurts, trifles, clear sauces, glazes, and jello shots
  • Fondant
  • Cream cheese, margarine, peanut butter, and low-fat spreads
  • Snack food coatings and seasonings, including peanuts
  • Protein powders with beef gelatin
  • Filters for alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine, though not always listed on the label
  • Bone broth, homemade or store-bought

Candies that Contain Gelatin

  • Gummy Bears
  • Marshmallows
  • Jelly Beans
  • Candy Corn
  • Pop rocks
  • Peeps

Gelatin In Skincare & Cosmetics

  • Collagen and retinol serums
  • Moisturizers, lotions, and ointments
  • Implants or dermal fillers

Gelatin In Medicine and Industrial Uses

  • Pill capsules and soft gels used for vitamins and supplements as well as some medications
  • Photographic films and papers (that’s right, photo film isn’t vegan)
  • Match heads and sandpaper (as a binder)
  • Some specialty paper

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.

Vegan Gelatin Alternatives

If you’re looking for a vegan-friendly gelatin to use in your cooking, baking, candy making, or anything else, have a whole guide to vegan gelatin alternatives. This guide also covers vegan friendly gummy candies, vitamins, marshmallows, jello, and beyond.

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  1. While I’m not vegan, I’ve recently become highly allergic to mammalian meat (lamb, pork, beef, ect.) due to a tic bite I didn’t even know I got, so now I need to be wary of these things for medical reasons. Did you know McDonalds uses beef flavoring on their fries before they’re frozen? Learned that from my fiance who used to work there!

    • We’re sorry to hear about your medical condition and understand that it can be difficult to navigate food choices. It is shocking how companies will sneak animal products into various foods for seemingly no reason. We have a guide to how to order at McDonald’s, plus several restaurant guides that may help you find options that are suitable for your needs. Hope it helps 🙂

  2. It’s so shocking to see all the different items that have gelatin. Definitely is something that should be removed from these items.

  3. Andrea White says:

    So aggravating that it’s in as much as it’s in. Especially when there are so many vegan alternatives out there. Will send this to others to learn more about it!

  4. Gelatin is scary! I always avoid it in food, but was not aware of how it lurks in industrial uses and skincare. Thanks for the informative article.

  5. A very helpful and clear article about gelatin! Not many people know what is gelatin is made out of and the fact that it’s easily substituted for a plant-based option. Thank you!

  6. Beatriz Buono-Core says:

    You think you know where everything comes from but gelatin is such a mystery for so many people! Great article 🙂

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