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Gelatin: What Is It? Plus 8 Uses and Benefits
If you’ve ever had Jell-O before, you’ve come into contact with gelatin whether you realize it or not. What might surprise you is that it’s a lot more than just a creative way to make your dessert jiggle — it’s also a source of important nutrients.
A type of protein derived from collagen, gelatin is found in animal parts that provide us with important amino acids, the “building blocks” of proteins. In fact, its unique amino acid profile is the reason for many of its health benefits, which you’ll read about below.
Top Gelatin Benefits and Uses
So what is gelatin exactly? In the case of food manufacturing, gelatin is made into a dried powder that’s created from isolating and dehydrating parts of animals, including skin, bones and tissue. This might not sound too appetizing, but you likely won’t even know your eating it when you have it because it’s virtually colorless and tasteless.
The reason it’s used in food preparation and as the basis of many jellies, desserts and candies is because it acts like a sticky adhesive, similar to a natural glue. The gelatinous quality of gelatin is actually one of the things that makes it beneficial when we consume it, because this is what allows gelatin to help form strong cartilage or connective tissuethat gives parts of our bodies elasticity. (1)
Thankfully, we can consume gelatin by eating a lot more than just processed desserts. You might have noticed an increase of popularity of bone broth lately. Did you know that this is actually a rich source of naturally occurring gelatin? Bone broth is often used to help clear up food allergies or intolerances, digestive issues, leaky gut syndrome, autoimmune disorders, and more.
One of the reasons is because gelatin provides amino acids like glycine that strengthen the gut lining and therefore lower inflammation. Glycine is used by doctors to help improve digestive, joint, cardiovascular, cognitive and skin health.
In addition, gelatin benefits include the following:
1. Improves Gut Health and Digestion
Similarly to collagen, gelatin is beneficial for preventing intestinal damage and improving the lining of the digestive tract, thereby preventing permeability and leaky gut syndrome. (2) You can think of the gut lining as one of the body’s most important lines of defense, since it keeps particles from food, bacteria and yeast inside the digestive system where they belong and prevents leakage into the bloodstream, which triggers inflammation.
Gelatin can improve your ability to produce adequate gastric acid secretions that are needed for proper digestion and nutrient absorption. Glycine from gelatin is important for restoring a healthy mucosal lining in the stomach and facilitating with the balance of digestive enzymes and stomach acid. When you don’t make the proper amount of enzymes/stomach acid, you can experience common digestive problems like nutrient deficiencies, acid reflux, bloating, indigestion, as well as anemia. Older people often experience more digestive problems because vital digestive juices are lowered during the aging process and worsened by increased stress.
Finally, gelatin is capable of absorbing water and fluids, which helps prevent fluid retention and bloated stomach while improving constipation.
2. Protects Joints and Lowers Joint Pain
Collagen and gelatin have gained notoriety for easing symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis is common in older people and considered the leading cause of frequent joint pains. As people age, they tend to develop more stiffness, aches and limited mobility that worsen over time since collagen continues to break down and erode. Gelatin and collagen help stall chronic inflammatory responses, which reduces pain and stops progressive disease that lead to impairments in joint function, such as degenerative joint disease.
Research shows that people with osteoarthritis, joint pain, bone-related problems like osteoporosis, and exercise-related soreness or injuries can all benefit from supplementing with gelatin. (3) In clinical trials, people taking gelatin (around two grams daily) tend to experience less inflammation, less pain in the joints or muscles, better recovery, and even improved athletic abilities compared to people taking a placebo.
3. Helps Improve Sleep Quality
Certain studies have shown that gelatin helps people who continuously experience trouble falling asleep, can’t sleep or who have general unsatisfactory sleep if they take three grams before bedtime. Researchers investigated the effects of gelatin on subjective sleep quality and found that it improved daytime sleepiness, daytime cognitive functions, sleep quality and sleep efficacy (sleep time/in-bed time), plus it shortened the time it took to fall asleep and improved slow-wave sleep without changes in the normal/healthy sleep architecture.
Glycine also seems to improve sleep in a different way than traditional sleep medications or hypnotic drugs, which normally means less drowsiness and side effects the following day are experienced. (4)
4. Lifts Your Mood and Improves Cognitive Abilities
The amino acid glycine is considered an “inhibitory neurotransmitter,” which means it acts similarly to some anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications, only without the unwanted complications and side effects. People use glycine and other forms of amino acid therapy to naturally boost mental clarity and calmness because certain amino acids help lower “stress hormones” like norepinephrine and increase “happy hormones” like GABA.
About half of the inhibitory synapses in the spinal cord use glycine, and research shows that when glycine is not properly metabolized it can result in an increased risk for developmental problems, lethargy, seizures and mental retardation. (5)
5. Improves Skin Health
Worried about your skin developing wrinkles, sun damage, stretch marks and other signs of aging? Here’s some good news: Consuming gelatin (and taking collagen directly) can help improve your appearance thanks to its positive effects on skin health and cellular rejuvenation. Collagen is considered a primary building block for skin and is partially what gives skin a youthful, healthy appearance.
Gelatin is important for the process of renewing skin cells and can also help block your skin from UV light damage, therefore protecting you from free radical damage, wrinkles and potentially skin cancer. One of the reasons we develop signs of aging is because of collagen depletion, which for most of us usually starts when we are in our 20s or early 30s and only continues to accelerate. As we continue to lose collagen, we can develop cellulite, loose skin and fine lines as a result of skin losing its firmness. (6)
The older we get and the more we put our bodies through, the more we could use extra collagen to to buffer the effects of environmental stress we all face. Consuming more gelatin is a smart natural skin care habit because it helps stimulate new and non-fragmented collagen, not only restoring skin’s durability, but also helping you maintain strong hair, nails and teeth.
6. Helps Maintain Heart Health
One of the most beneficial roles that gelatin plays in the body is neutralizing chemical compounds that we acquire from eating meat. Animal products including meat from chicken, beef, turkey, etc., along with eggs, are high in a type of amino acid called methionine.
While methionine has some beneficial roles in the body, in excess it also raises your risk for heart problems and other ailments because it increases the amount of homocysteinein your blood. (7) The more methionine we consume, the more we require other nutrients that help lower homocysteine’s negative effects. High blood levels of homocysteine have been linked with increased inflammation levels and diseases like arteriosclerosis, other forms of cardiovascular disease, stroke, weakened bones and impairments in cognitive functions.
It’s not that you need to cut out all animal products in order to become healthier; rather you need to make sure you balance out the types of nutrients you get from your diet. If you have a diet that’s high in meat/eggs or low in animal products in general (you’re a vegetarian), you want to consume substances like gelatin to make sure you get a range of important amino acids in healthy amounts.
7. Maintains Strong Bones
Our bones require a steady supply of nutrients to maintain their density and strength. Gelatin is rich is nutrients like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon and sulfur, which help form bones and prevent fractures or bone loss. Those nutrients are also great for bone healing. Researchers now believe that gelatin (collagen hydrolysate) can act like a safe, therapeutic agent for treating osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, even when used long term in chronic disorders. (8)
8. Helps You Feel Full
Just like protein foods and other sources of protein, certain studies have found that taking gelatin supplements (up to about 20 grams) helps increase satiety and control hunger hormones. (9) While it has’t been proven to be a helpful weight loss tool, it seems capable of increasing satiety hormones like leptin and lowering appetite hormones like ghrelin in obese adults.
Collagen vs. Gelatin: What’s the Difference?
Gelatin is a form of hydrolyzed collagen, which means it’s essentially a part of broken-down collagen. Collagen is “the most abundant protein in the animal kingdom” and the major component of connective tissue in the human body, amazingly making up about a quarter of our total body mass. (10)
Collagen is a key builder of healthy skin, muscle, tendons, joints, bones and other tissue in both humans and animals, so when we don’t produce enough it’s no wonder our health suffers big time. Within the body, collagen goes through a series of steps to break down its long chain proteins into its original amino acids, which are then absorbed and used for collagen synthesis throughout the body.
Collagen and gelatin are similar in terms of their benefits because they contain the same amino acids, but their uses are slightly different and some people digest gelatin a bit more easily. Cooking collagen helps isolate gelatin, and gelatin only dissolves in hot water. It forms a noticeably gel-like substance when mixed with water, but collagen does not. This means gelatin might have more practical uses when cooking, such as making your own jellies or thickening sauces.
To convert collagen from animal parts into gelatin, several processes are used that break down collagen’s intermolecular bonds and release certain amino acids. Extraction of gelatin in food manufacturing is usually done using hot water and acid solutions to hydrolyze collagen into gelatin. Then certain filtration, clarification and sterilization processes usually take place to form the dried, final product, depending on how it’s sold.
Like with most foods or supplements, the less processing it goes through the better it is for you when you consume it. Gelatin degradation is minimized most by deriving gelatin at the lowest temperature possible, which allows it to hold on to its natural peptide structure that provides its benefits.
Gelatin’s Unique Amino Acid Profile
Once isolated from collagen, gelatin is made up of about 98 percent to 99 percent protein by dry weight. It’s considered “unusually high in amino acids glycine and proline,” which are “non-essential” (or conditional) because the body makes some of them on its own. The amino acid composition of gelatin is approximately:
One of the most valuable amino acids we get from gelatin is glycine. Glycine, in addition to other amino acids like proline, is what comprises collagen, which is critical for giving connective tissue throughout the body its strength and durability. Glycine is also important for our ability to naturally detoxify ourselves of heavy metal chemicals or toxic substances we come into contact with through our diet and environment.
Consuming plenty of glycine has been tied to better glutathione production, which is one the of the most important liver-cleansingdetoxifiers we have, helping clean our blood and usher harmful substance out of the body.
In addition to supplying glycine, gelatin contains proline, which has some of the following benefits: (11)
works with glycine to form collagen and connective tissues
assists in the breakdown of other proteins in the body
helps with the formation of new cells
helps with proper muscle tissue maintenance
protects the digestive system from permeability
prevents decrease of muscle mass in endurance runners and athletes
Why We Need Gelatin
Wondering if you actually need to supplement with gelatin or add more to your diet purposefully? For most people, the answer is yes. Traditional diets of our ancestors typically included higher amounts of gelatin, since a “nose-to-tail” eating approach of animals was popular.
But today, the average person runs low on gelatin (and other animal-derived compounds like collagen) since many edible animal parts are often discarded. It’s not chicken breast or filet mignon that supplies gelatin naturally; it’s the “gelatinous” parts of the animals that aren’t usually consumed nowadays, including the animal’s skin, bone marrow and tendons.
While we can make some of the amino acids on our own, we might require more as we age and if we have high levels of inflammation, compromised digestion, weak joints or damaged bones.
Another group likely running very low in gelatin is vegetarians. Considering vegetarians and vegans don’t eat most or all animal products, they have no exposure to it on a normal basis. A mostly vegetarian diet might be healthy if done carefully, but it raises your risk for being low in all essential amino acids the human body requires since it eliminates “complete proteins” like meat, fish, and sometimes eggs and dairy.
How to Add More Gelatin to Your Diet
The best way to consume gelatin is to eat animals “nose to tail,” meaning you don’t discard the bones and connective tissue but rather make them into broth or soup. You can do this by simply brewing some bone broth at home using this Bone Broth Recipe.
While eating parts of animals that contain collagen and consuming bone broth are both ideal ways to obtain gelatin and collagen, this isn’t always easy or possible. As an alternative, you can use powdered gelatin, which takes much less time to prepare. This way allows you to make a fast, simple substitute for bone broth and gives you another way to acquire beneficial amino acids.
Hydrolyzed gelatin powder can be mixed into any type of liquid, including soups, broths and stews. Some people even use it in cold water like smoothies or juices. When looking to buy it in grocery stores or online, you’ll likely come across gelatin in the form of sheets, granules or powder. You can use instant types in recipes (which usually need to be soaked in water to absorb the fluid and become a gel), but make sure you get the most beneficial kind possible.
Keep in mind that the overall health of an animal impacts the quality of the collagen and gelatin it stores inside its body. It’s important to consume quality animal products, including meat, skin, eggs and collagen, because properly raised animals store more minerals in their bodies, have more beneficial fatty acid profiles (more omega-3s and less omega-6s) and are less contaminated.
I recommend purchasing gelatin and collagen products from animals that have been grass-fed or pasture-raised, since these animals are healthier overall and are not raised using artificial hormones or antibiotics. Going one step further, look for organic gelatin whenever possible to ensure the animals did not eat a diet that consisted of GMO grains or crops sprayed with chemicals.
A type of protein derived from collagen, gelatin is found in animal parts that provide us with important amino acids, the “building blocks” of proteins.
Bone broth — often used to clear up food allergies or intolerances, digestive issues, leaky gut syndrome, autoimmune disorders, and more — is a rich source of naturally occurring gelatin.
Gelatin improves gut health and digestion, protects joints and lowers joint pain, helps improve sleep quality, lifts mood and improves cognitive abilities, improves skin health, helps maintain heart health, maintains strong bones, and helps you feel full.
Gelatin is made up of about 98 percent to 99 percent protein by dry weight. It’s considered unusually high in amino acids glycine and proline.
Most people don’t consume enough gelatin nowadays because it’s most prevalent in animal parts we no longer consume: skin, marrow, tendons.