Gelatin is a protein substance derived from collagen, a natural protein present in the tendons, ligaments, and tissues of mammals. It is produced by boiling the connective tissues, bones and skins of animals, usually cows and pigs. Gelatin's ability to form strong, transparent gels and flexible films that are easily digested, soluble in hot water, and capable of forming a positive binding action have made it a valuable commodity in food processing, pharmaceuticals, photography, and paper production.
As a foodstuff, gelatin is the basis for jellied desserts; used in the preservation of fruit and meat, and to make powdered milk, merinque, taffy, marshmallow, and fondant. It is also used to clarify beer and wine. Gelatin's industrial applications include medicine capsules, photographic plate coatings, and dying and tanning supplies.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, making gelatin was a laborious task. Calves' feet were loaded into a large kettle that was then placed over a fire. The feet were boiled for several hours after which the liquid was strained and the bones were discarded. After setting for 24 hours, a layer of fat would rise to the top. This was skimmed off and discarded. Sweeteners and or flavorings were added to the liquid and it was poured into molds and allowed again to set.
By the 1840s, however, some producers were grinding the set gelatin into a fine powder or cutting it into sheets. One of them was Charles B. Knox, a salesman from Johnston, New York, who hit on the idea of making gelatin more convenient after watching his wife Rose make it in their kitchen. Knox packaged dried sheets of gelatin and then hired salesmen to travel door-to-door to show women how to add liquid to the sheets and use it to make aspics, molds, and desserts. In 1896, Rose Knox published Dainty Desserts, a book of recipes using Knox gelatin.
The first patent for a gelatin dessert was issued in 1845 to industrialist and inventor Peter Cooper. Cooper had already made a name for himself as the inventor of the Tom Thumb steam engine. He had also made a fortune in the manufacture of glue, a process similar to that for making gelatin.
In 1897, Pearl B. Wait, a carpenter and cough medicine manufacturer, developed a fruit-flavored gelatin. His wife, May Davis Wait, named his product Jell-O. The new product was not immediately popular and Wait sold the rights to the process to Orator Francis Woodward, owner of the Genesee Food Company, for $450. Sales continued to limp along until 1902 when an aggressive advertising campaign in Ladies Home Journal magazine generated enormous interest. Sales jumped to $250,000.
The use of gelatin in food preparation increased six-fold in the 40-year period from 1936-1976. Today, 400 million packages of Jello-O are produced each year. Over a million packages are purchased or eaten each day.
In the field of photography, gelatin was introduced in the late 1870s as a substitute for wet collodion. It was used to coat dry photographic plates, marking the beginning of modern photographic methods. Gelatin's
Animal bones, skins, and tissue are obtained from slaughterhouses. Gelatin processing plants are usually located nearby so that these animal byproducts can be quickly processed.
Acids and alkalines such as caustic lime or sodium carbonate are used to extract minerals and bacteria from the animal parts. They are either produced in the food processing plant or purchased from outside vendors.
Sweeteners, flavorings, and colorings are added in the preparation of food gelatin. These can be in liquid or powdered forms and are purchased from outside vendors.
The packaging process is automated, with preset amounts of gelatin poured into overhead funnels through which the gelatin flows down into bags made of either polypropylene or multi-ply paper. The bags are then vacuumed sealed.
Gelatin manufacturers must adhere to stringent national and international food processing requirements. These regulations include but are not limited to cleanliness of the plant, equipment and employees; and allowable percentages of additives, flavorings, and colorings.
Automated and computerized technologies allow the processors to preset and monitor ingredient amounts, time and temperature, acidity and alkalinity, and flow levels. Valves are installed along pipelines to allow for continuous sampling of the product.
Gelatin is processed to varying "bloom" values that measure the gel strength or firmness. The desired strength corresponds to the manner in which the gelatin will be used. The bloom value is technically measured and monitored throughout the production process.
Since 1986 when the presence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, was reported in Great Britain, there has been much concern about the processing of beef bones for the production of gelatin. In 1989, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the importation of cattle from the Department of Agriculture's list of of BSE-designated countries. However, a 1994 FDA ruling allowed the continued importation of bones and tissues for the production of pharmaceutical grade gelatin.
By 1997, however, the FDA held hearings to reconsider its decision. After interviewing gelatin processors, the agency found that while gelatin has not been implicated in the spread of BSE, officials are not convinced that the manufacturing processing is extracting all possible agents that are responsible for the disease. It was generally agreed that beef sources carry more of a risk than those from pork, that bones carry a higher risk than skins, and that alkaline processing is more effective than the acid-extraction method. These findings will certainly affect the gelatin-processing industry in the next century.
Harvey Lang, Jenifer, ed. Larousse Gastronomique. New York: Crown Publishers, 1988, reprinted 1998.
Marwick, Charles. "BSE sets agenda for imported gelatin." Journal of American Medical Association (June 4, 1997): 1,659.
Leiner Davis Gelatin. http://www.gelatin.com/ (June 29, 1999).
Kraft Foods. http://www.kraftfoods.com/ (June 29, 1999).
Sterling Gelatin. http://www.sterlinggelatin.com (June 29, 1999).
— Mary McNulty