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 on a wooden tray in different forms—powder, strips, granules, and liquid.
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“Gelatin is made of what?!” This exclamation of disbelief is a common reaction when people first discover the source of gelatin.

This seemingly innocuous ingredient, known for its inexpensiveness, has quietly permeated various products, from sweet treats to household items and even cosmetics in recent years. However, before you rush to stock up on gelatin powders, granules, or gelatin sheets, there’s a captivating story behind this ingredient that deserves to be uncovered.

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

What Is Gelatin Made From?

So…what is gelatin made of? A byproduct of industrial meat processing, gelatin is made from various animal parts, including bones, hooves, skin, tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue. Essentially: 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 mammal (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 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.

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 are then sent through a massive oven that dries and roasts them for 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 consumers in the form of gelatin powder and gelatin sheets.

Foods That Have 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

Candies that Contain Gelatin

Here are the most common candies that have gelatin:

Many gummy candies contain gelatin, so always check the ingredient label to be sure!

vegan vegetarian marshmallows

Gelatin In Skincare and Cosmetics

Gelatin can sneak into cosmetics too! Here are the most common culprits:

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

Explore World of Vegan’s Vegan Bath, Body, and Beauty Guides to discover vegan and cruelty-free options.

Vegan Skincare Guide and Best Cruelty Free Skin Care Brands

Gelatin In Medicine and Industrial Uses

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Jell-O vegan?

The Jell-O Gelatin Dessert is not vegan as it contains gelatin. However, the Jell-O brand does have some instant pudding flavors that are vegan. Some contain dairy but there are several flavors that are vegan-friendly!

What is Jell-O made of?

Jell-O gelatin dessert is made of sugar, gelatin, adipic acid, disodium phosphate and sodium citrate, fumaric acid, natural and artificial flavor. It also contains various food dyes depending on the flavor.

Is gelatin vegetarian?

No, gelatin is not considered vegetarian. Gelatin is a protein obtained from the collagen found in animal bones, skin, and connective tissues. It is commonly used as a gelling agent in food products such as desserts, marshmallows, and gummy candies. Since gelatin is derived from animal sources, it is not suitable for vegetarian diets. However, there are vegetarian and vegan alternatives to gelatin that serve similar purposes in food preparation. See those options below.

Vegan Gelatin Alternatives

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

When it comes to creating delightful vegan treats and dishes, gelatin has traditionally posed a challenge. Fortunately, the world of plant-based alternatives is expanding rapidly, and there are now a plethora of vegan gelatin substitutes to explore.

1. Agar-Agar

Derived from seaweed, agar-agar is perhaps the most well-known and widely used vegan gelatin alternative. It has been a staple in Asian cuisine for centuries and is renowned for its gelling properties. Agar-agar is a versatile ingredient that can be used to create a wide range of textures, from firm to delicate, making it perfect for both sweet and savory recipes.

2. Carrageenan

Carrageenan, extracted from certain species of red seaweed, is another popular vegan gelatin substitute. It’s often used in dairy-free milks and plant-based desserts like puddings and ice creams to achieve a creamy texture. Carrageenan comes in two forms: kappa and iota, each with slightly different gelling properties, providing flexibility in culinary applications.

3. Pectin

Pectin is a natural plant-based gelling agent found in fruits, particularly in their peels and cores. It’s commonly used in jams, jellies, and fruit-based desserts. Pectin comes in various forms, such as high methoxyl (HM) and low methoxyl (LM), each suitable for different culinary purposes. It’s an excellent choice for those looking to add a touch of natural sweetness and fruit flavor to their dishes.

4. Konjac Powder

Derived from the konjac plant’s root, konjac powder is a lesser-known vegan gelatin alternative. It’s valued for its thickening and gelling properties, making it ideal for creating jelly-like textures in vegan desserts and savory dishes alike. Konjac is also famous for its low-calorie and low-carb profile, making it a favorite among health-conscious cooks.

5. Homemade Flaxseed or Chia Seed Gel

For those who prefer to keep things simple, flaxseed and chia seed gels can be created at home with ease. By mixing these seeds with water, you can create a thick, gel-like consistency. This DIY approach is perfect for adding body and binding to recipes like baked goods and smoothies.

6. Vegan Gelatin Products

In recent years, several companies have developed commercial vegan gelatin products that mimic traditional animal-based gelatin. These products are typically made from plant-based ingredients such as tapioca starch or carrageenan and are available in various forms, including sheets, powder, and granules.

As the demand for vegan alternatives continues to grow, innovative solutions to replace traditional gelatin keep emerging. Whether you’re a seasoned vegan chef or just starting your plant-based journey, these vegan gelatin alternatives offer a world of culinary possibilities, ensuring that you can enjoy all your favorite recipes without compromising your ethical beliefs. Experiment, have fun, and embrace the delicious world of vegan gelatin alternatives!

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  1. Pri Maharaj says:

    Thank you for all the info I really appreciate it.

  2. Elizabeth Brown says:

    Thank you for your all your information,it’s really appreciated

  3. 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 🙂

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

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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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