GELATIN IS A COMMON INGREDIENT IN MANY different food products, such as desserts, candy, and yogurt. It also has many pharmaceutical applications, including being a major component in many capsules and vitamins. To date, food technologists haven't been able to synthesize gelatin in a lab or find a vegetable equivalent that has all of gelatin's unique properties—such as its ability to make water bind to other ingredients, giving foods consistency; to stabilize foams and gels; and to impart a smooth taste to certain foods—all at the same time. For vegetarians, gelatin presents problems because it is derived from collagen, a component of the skins and bones of animals.
In 2007, the writer noticed the use of the phrase 'kosher gelatin' on some ingredient statements, including the one for McDonald's yogurt. When asked about the source of the 'kosher gelatin,' McDonald's informed the writer that it was "from an animal source." No further information was given. After further research for this report, we discovered that there is no uniform meaning to the term 'kosher gelatin.'
The VRG contacted four major kosher certifying agencies that certify kosher food products in the United States today—Star-K, OK, the Orthodox Union (OU), and KOF-K—to clarify the meaning of kosher gelatin. These four agencies are considered "normative mainstream" by J.M. Regenstein, a Jewish food technologist who has published extensively on kosher food laws. Star-K said, "Kosher gelatin is derived from kosher animal sources. Gelatin derived from pig would not be considered kosher. Kosher gelatin is derived from kosher slaughtered and processed bovine sources or from kosher species of fish. Gelatin derived from fish is permitted in yogurt or other dairy foods according to most opinions."
Star-K also told us their position on the use of gelatin (a meat product) in yogurt (a dairy product). "There is debate among authorities if bovine gelatin, which is derived from animal skins or bones, can be eaten with dairy. Star-K would not allow for use of kosher bovine gelatin in yogurt or other dairy foods." These facts may present technical difficulties for yogurt makers who wish to attain kosher certification for their gelatin-containing yogurt. Fish gelatin does not have the gelling strength needed in yogurt.
In e-mail correspondence, Miriam Wudowsky of the OK kosher certifying agency said, "Kosher gelatin is made from kosher fish and/or agar agar. The OK never uses anything made from pig or other nonkosher animals."
The OU does certify as kosher the bovine gelatin derived from cattle slaughtered in kosher fashion. To the best of our knowledge, there are two companies that produce gelatin certifiable according to OU standards. One of them is Glatech Productions, a New Jersey-based company that produces Kolatin® brand kosher gelatin. An officer at Glatech told us that Kolatin® is derived from the hides of glatt (a Jewish term referring to an animal whose internal organs are adhesion-free) kosher cattle raised in the U.S. and slaughtered in kosher fashion.
There are other kosher-certifying agencies that will certify as kosher food products containing pig-derived gelatin. Ko Kosher of Philadelphia is one such agency. They certify products from more than 200 companies, including General Mills, Hershey Foods, Jelly Belly, and GNC. According to Rabbi Novoseller of Ko Kosher, gelatin is not a food. At one time during its processing, when the bones and hides of animals are treated with acid during the gelatin extraction process, gelatin was not a food. In fact, it was "inedible even to a dog," referring to a commonly known Jewish test of what is or is not a food. According to Jewish dietary laws, "If something is not a food, it cannot be non-kosher." Therefore, according to Rabbi Novoseller, gelatin is kosher, regardless of animal species and slaughter method.
Vegetarians should be aware that gelatin is animalderived, and a designation that gelatin is kosher does not mean it is vegetarian. There are hundreds of kosher symbols and certifications, so you need to know the particular kosher agency's policies and what the particular certification actually means to determine if a product meets your needs.
Most food technologists agree that vegetable gums do not mimic all of the characteristics of gelatin well and are not often used as gelatin substitutes. Jeff Morehouse of Aqualon, a company that manufactures cellulose gums, told us that gelatin replacements are very expensive and not really being investigated by food companies. Consumer demand, awareness, and purchase of vegetarian products are needed to change that corporate attitude.
Agar agar, carrageenan, and other vegetable gums are vegetarian substitutes used in some products. For marshmallows and jels made without animal gelatin, check out online retailers, such as the Vegetarian Site.com, Pangea, the Mail Order Catalog, Vegan Essentials, and Ethical Planet, or elsewhere.
Jeanne Yacoubou is The VRG's Research Director. She holds master's degrees in philosophy, chemistry, and education.
The contents of this website and our other publications, including Vegetarian Journal, are not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional. We often depend on product and ingredient information from company statements. It is impossible to be 100% sure about a statement, info can change, people have different views, and mistakes can be made. Please use your own best judgment about whether a product is suitable for you. To be sure, do further research or confirmation on your own.
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