Getting to the Bottom of Gelatin: Is it Safe or Not?

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One of the reasons I don’t eat sweets is because, over the years, I have discovered that most of them have gelatine in them. A friend of mine owned a chain of small shops in which you could go, as in the Western sweet shops, and scoop out various candies you wanted from open, shelf-like drawers, have them weighed and pay for them. I liked them very much. When the red and green dot was introduced, she put the red dot on all of them, including my favourite, the black liquorice sweets. She then told me that she – and the rest of the world – bought them from China and simply repackaged them. That was when I realized that I could not eat sweets any more.

I also gave up eating anything in a capsule.

Gelatin is a flavourless, colourless, gelling and thickening agent with unique properties: it dissolves in hot water and gels when it cools (a process which is reversible), and creates a texture and bite in various foods. The gelatin market is worth over 3 billion dollars. It is used in gummy chewy candies, gummy bears, jelly babies,  jelly, mints, some chewing gums, marshmallows, ice creams, commercial cakes, icing, frosting, cream cheese, margarine, commercial yoghurt and sour cream, frosted cereals, frosted poptarts, salted nuts (gelatine helps hold the salt onto the nut, like in Planters dry roasted peanuts), coffee and milk substitutes, lozenges, Chinese dumplings, cosmetics (under the name hydrolysed collagen), shampoos, facemasks. Gelatine is also used in fat reduced foods to simulate the feel of fat and to create volume without adding calories. It is used to strain commercial juices like apple juice and vinegar. It is the yellow colour in all soft drinks.

Certain professional and theatrical lighting equipment use colour gels to change the beam colour. All photographic films and paper use it. It is the glue used on match heads, sandpaper and agarbattis. It is found in watercolour paper, glossy printing papers and playing cards, and it maintains the wrinkles in crêpe paper.

Gelatine is made by boiling animal bones, ligaments, skin or tendons, with water. 44% of the world’s supply comes from pigskin, 28% from cowskin, 27% from bones and 1% is anything else. In essence, it’s made primarily from the stuff meat industries have left over, feet, skins, horns, bones It has no nutritive value and is simply a thickening agent. You’re basically dropping shards of animal waste into an acid, or alkaline, bath and selling it for 545 rupees a kg.

Gelatin is made by boiling animal bones, ligaments, skin or tendons, with water. 44% of the world’s supply comes from pigskin, 28% from cowskin, 27% from bones and 1% is anything else. In essence, it’s made primarily from the stuff meat industries have left over, feet, skins, horns, bones It has no nutritive value and is simply a thickening agent to give food a soft, squishy consistency. I don’t even know why it’s legally permissible to be considered a “food” product. You’re basically dropping shards of animal waste into an acid, or alkaline, bath and selling it for 545 rupees a kg.  The market is growing, as India plunges deeper into processed foods. Its growth is projected at 6-7% between 2016 and 2024, with most of it in the Asia-Pacific region.

So far vegetarians have had to restrict themselves to using alternatives made from agar agar, a seaweed algae. Other alternatives are carrageenan, pectin, konjak, and guar gum. Hypromellose is a vegetarian-acceptable alternative to gelatine capsules, but is more expensive to produce.

But now the future is upon us. The inventors of food are no less than the geniuses in the I.T. field – and perhaps far more relevant. I have just read about Gelzen, a company that produces gelatine from a genetically engineered micro-organism in fermentation tanks. If we can take this up it will disrupt the gelatine market with a game changing, animal free, alternative.

Just as two Indian boys are in Silicon Valley making real milk from multiplying milk cells (it was called Muufrii, but I think they’ve changed the name), Alexander Lorestani who studied medicine at Rutgers and bacterial pathogenesis at Princeton, and molecular biologist Nikolay Ouzounov, founded Gelzen in San Francisco in 2015 to do the same with gelatine.

“There is significant demand for an alternative that can precisely replicate the unique qualities of gelatine. While the alternatives are good, agar agar, pectin, starches, gums, they don’t have the same chemical or mechanical properties,” said Lorestani, who is effectively programing microbes to produce collagen via a fermentation process without using or harming animals.

Gelatin replacement has been a major issue in recent years, due to the emerging and lucrative vegetarian, halal and kosher markets. Even meat eaters have problems with gelatin: pork is not halaal or kosher, cows are not permitted for Hindus. There are also concerns about mad cow disease being transmitted. Everyone should have an issue with eating boiled animal tails and feet, teats and unmentionable parts.

Gelatin replacement has been a major issue in recent years, due to the emerging and lucrative vegetarian, halal and kosher markets. Even meat eaters have problems with gelatin: pork is not halaal or kosher, cows are not permitted for Hindus. There are also concerns about mad cow disease being transmitted. Everyone should have an issue with eating boiled animal tails and feet, teats and unmentionable parts.

In India there is a great demand to switch to plant based alternatives, especially in pharmaceuticals.  Some international companies have started looking at bio engineering plants. For instance, the Israeli firm Collplant has genetically manipulated tobacco plants to produce collagen that can be used for wound care (this frightens me). But Gelzen seems to be the first in trying to produce gelatin, on an industrial scale for food and other commercial-scale applications, from recombined proteins.

Gelzen takes microbes, approved for the production of food that naturally produce proteins, and gives them a set of instructions, in the form of genes, to make collagen. Basically they programme bacteria with the DNA of collagen. There are companies in the world that sell the DNA of any being. So, Gelzen started off by ordering mastodon DNA to make mastodon collagen. (The mastodon is the prehistoric, extinct, ancestor of the elephant.) The microbes are put into large fermenters with their food: sugar, nitrogen, oxygen and carbon. After a batch has been produced, it is purified.  Each batch can be modified according to what it is being used for – whether hard sweets or soft jellies.

Every time a company comes up with humane alternatives to meat, milk and animal parts, I am so hopeful. If I had the money, I would be the angel investor in all of them. Gelzen plans to supply the product by summer 2017 and be in the big league in four years. They have already got 2.5 million dollars in investment.

How come no one in India is doing any original research in food or I.T.? Or anything?

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Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

Maneka Gandhi is an Indian MP, animal rights activist, environmentalist and former model. Maneka Gandhi writes weekly column Heads & Tails for the Kashmir Observer. To join her animal rights movement contact gandhim@nic.in

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