There are vegan food alternatives to everything. Nondairy milk sales are growing faster than conventional dairy, and meatless meats sell out in record time. There are vegan eggs that scramble, vegan aged cheeses, vegan cheeses that melt and stretch, and now, it’s gelatin’s turn.
Not nearly as appetizing as vegan cheese or burgers, but gelatin plays a significant role in our food and supplement system. It’s often found in yogurts, cakes, marshmallows, gummy candies, and, of course, Jell-O.—those colorful, wobbly cubes that dissolved into pure sugary sweetness. Bet you never knew they were once the bones of pigs, cows, and fish, aka gelatin.
Turn the bottle around on most encapsulated dietary supplements or medicines, and you’re likely going to see gelatin listed as the primary ingredient for the capsule. For vegans, it can be a compromise when taking necessary prescription medicines. Sometimes there is no vegan capsule alternative, save for buying empty cellulose capsules and transferring the contents yourself.
According to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), gelatin is produced by “boiling animal skin, tendons, cartilage, ligaments, and/or bones in water.” In short, it’s a dated factory farm practice that uses up the parts of the animals most people would be horrified to consume. But add some neon colors and a jiggle, and it becomes nearly impossible to imagine where it really came from.
But times are changing.
One company, Gelzen, is working to produce a gelling product out of bacteria and yeast that performs just like animal-derived gelatin.
“Scavenging essential products from animals presents urgent economic problems, environmental problems, public health problems, and for many, moral problems,” Gelzen says on its website.
Agar-agar and kudzu have long been used as gelatin alternatives. Agar-agar, derived from seaweed, recently had a moment in the spotlight with the viral New York City concoction spotted at Smorgasburg called Raindrop Cake—it’s agar-agar dissolved in water to form a translucent raindrop-shaped cake that’s more like colorless Jell-O. And it’s now available in Los Angeles, too.
“It’s a very specific proportion of agar that I use,” says Darren Wong, the creator of the Raindrop Cake. “It’s a very delicate process that creates the correct texture of it looking and feeling like you’re eating a raindrop.”
What’s most impressive, though, is that it’s done without the use of gelatin, shining the spotlight on healthy vegan alternatives.
Trader Joe’s is getting in on the increasing demand for vegan gelatin-based products with the recent launch of vegan marshmallows that use tapioca starch to get the gelling effect.
One woman, Katerina Schneider, is working to replace gelatin in all supplement capsules with her supplement company called Ritual, which emphasizes gelatin-free capsules and gel-caps. Ritual recently attracted $1 million in funding for its subscription-based supplement program.
“I realized that most people didn’t know if the vitamins they were taking had what they needed, or where the ingredients in those vitamins came from or even what they were,” Schneider told the New York Times.
But while the demand for gelatin-free products may be on the rise, gelatin is still big business for the livestock industry. Sales of gelatin are expected to hit more than $4 billion by 2024.
Still, vegan businesses are poised to take away that market share.
“That’s what they care about and that’s how we hurt them,” Ryan Howard of Chicago Vegan Foods, which makes Dandies vegan marshmallows told All About Vegan Food.
“[T]here’s an added level of comfort that goes with running a vegan business. My employees can really get behind it and be proud because it is in line with their beliefs.”