What Is It?
Gelatin is obtained by boiling the skin, tendons, and ligaments of animals. As a result, it contains Protein, Collagen (a primary component of joints, Cartilage, and nails), and various Amino acids. It has long been a key ingredient for providing support for “jelled” desserts, salads, frozen drinks, and soft candies such as Gummi Bears. (In fact, the word gelatin is derived from the Latin “gelatus,” meaning stiff or frozen.)
Scientists have been studying gelatin for centuries. It has no smell or taste of its own, adapting to whatever it is added to. During the Napoleonic Wars, the French, desperate for nutrition sources during the English blockade, reportedly first turned to gelatin as a source of protein (albeit a weak one). Gelatin began its long run as a popular consumable, however, in the 1890s, when it was first developed-and then heavily promoted-as a commercial product by Charles Knox, founder of the Knox Gelatin Corporation.
In addition to its famous “jiggly” food uses, gelatin with its flexible, dissolvable structure is also used to manufacture capsules (both hard and “soft-gel”) to hold medications, vitamins, and other dietary supplements. It also has a range of industrial and medical engineering applications: Gelatin is an ingredient in film coatings, medical devices such as artificial heart valves, and in specialized meshes used to repair wounds, to name a few.
Several dietary supplements containing gelatin are marketed today.
Although gelatin has been touted for decades as a good source of protein and a great nail and hair strengthener, for the most part there is little hard scientific proof to support the vague health claims made for gelatin products.
For example, gelatin contains protein, but in an incomplete form that the body cannot readily use. This fact might be part of the reason that so many people died of malnutrition in the 1970s while on popular liquid diets; the gelatin in the product was supposed to have served as the main protein source. There was also a more recent weight-loss with gelatin craze that may have been spurred on by studies such as one published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in the early 1900s. This reported that animals fed only gelatin rapidly lost weight and strength. (They also ultimately died of starvation.)
Gelatin contains a number of amino acids (histidine, lysine, leucine, tryptophan, valine, phenylalanine, methionine, threonine, and isoleucine); amino acids are in fact the building blocks of proteins.
Specifically, gelatin is most commonly considered to:
Possibly promote joint health. Two of the amino acids found in gelatin are substances the body uses to make collagen, a primary component of connective tissues such as cartilage. Based on these findings, researchers sponsored by a major gelatin manufacturer are currently exploring whether supplemental gelatin might play a role in rebuilding arthritic joints.
In 1998, a small Nabisco Company-sponsored study at Indiana’s Ball State University found that gelatin supplements helped to keep the joints of athletes more flexible and could even help to lessen pain. Nabisco promotes this product under the name Knox NutraJoint. It and other widely advertised gelatin-based supplements also contain added ingredients that are known to be beneficial to joint health, such as calcium, Vitamin C, and glucosamine. See individual entries in the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library.
Possibly promote nail health. The body already manufactures abundant amounts of the amino acids that gelatin provides, so it’s questionable whether extra supplies of these nutrients will help build or maintain healthy nails or hair.
The claims by Knox/Nabisco about its product for “nail health” are vaguely worded but imply that with its use nail and hair growth will improve. “Knox Orange Drinking Gelatin, with Natural Orange flavor and Vitamin C” is recommended by Knox for this purpose. Nail improvement is supposed to be noticeable after one to three months. Hard evidence to confirm this, however, is difficult to find. On the positive side, there’s no evidence that gelatin can harm you.
–Powder formulations for use in drinks such as fruit juice or coffee should have instructions regarding amount on the label.
–Most gelatin “packets” contain about 2.5 teaspoons of powdered gelatin.
For joint health: One packet daily
For nail health: One packet daily
Guidelines for Use
If you are vegetarian and want to take supplements or medications in capsule form, consider alternative capsules made from agar-agar, a seaweed product, instead of animal-based gelatin ones.
Anecdotal reports from consumers indicate that plain gelatin purchased off grocery store shelves is a lot cheaper and just as effective for them as the fancier, pricier supplement alternatives.
Most of the powder formulations are not recommended for use in alcoholic or carbonated drinks.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with gelatin.
Possible Side Effects
Some people are allergic to bovine (cow) gelatin. If you require gelatin products for medical reasons, other sources, both fish-based and vegetarian, can often be substituted.
There are no known health risks associated with gelatin products.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700, ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD