Friday, February 3, 2012


Gelatin is a relatively minor substance that is used by food, pharmaceutical, photography and cosmetic industries which find this by-product of meat industry a very attractive material with some unique physical properties. As the world use of gelatin is less than 0.3 million tons and many effective substitutes have been developed from plant sources during the last few years, its significance is progressively diminishing though its recovery during slaughter house operations improves the economy of meat industry significantly. Use of gelatin by food industry is not very high because of its association with meat industry, many manufacturers preferring to use plant derived viscosity modifiers which include agar agar, carrageenan, pectin, konjak, guar gum etc..

While 27% of gelatin manufactured comes from animal bones, Bovine hide and Pig skin contribute 28% and 44% respectively. Production is largely concentrated in Western Europe (39%), Northern America (20%) and Latin America (17%). Gelatin is a protein by nature derived by partial hydrolysis of Collagen found in bones, connective tissues, organs, intestines of cattle, chicken and pig but its nutritional value as a protein source is very low. It is predominantly made of two amino acids-glycine and proline, has no tryptophan and is deficient in threonine, isoleucine and methionine. Therefore its value to the industry lies in its functional properties. It melts into a liquid at high temperatures and solidifies on cooling. It forms a high viscous fluid with hot water and can form a gel on cooling. This is the property which makes gelatin an attractive ingredient in many food products.

Gelatin is found in many food products that include Marshmallows, gelatin desserts, low fat yogurts, jams, cream cheese, a number of low fat foods, margarine, jelly base etc. Its properties as a stabilizer, thickener, texturizer, viscosity modifier, fat sparing ingredient are unique and given a choice any processor will opt for gelatin. Recent news that using biotechnology scientists have been able to make gelatin from human cells, if true, may provide a cleaner route for getting a cleaner and more consistent product for industrial use. The quality of gelatin from slaughter house waste is not uniform though there are broad quality ranges and lot of standardization is required before a uniform quality product with assured performance can be offered. Human gelatin, so called because of the use of human stem cells for producing the product, can be of a high quality with assured performance. Biotechnology has been even able to create artificial meat from human stem cells.    

The new technique for making gelatin from human DNA is receiving world wide attention after the reported success of Chinese scientists who were able to insert human genes into a strain of yeast to "grow" large amounts of recombinant.human gelatin. Though the experiments are still at an early stage, some doubts are being raised whether such products derived from stem cells will be acceptable to the industry and the consumer. The reported fiasco of marketing human "breast milk" as a health product in the UK is still fresh in the memory of many people and whether same sentiments may rule when it comes to accepting meat derived from human gene remains to be seen. More important consideration would be whether such products are safe and whether clinical trials are required to be done to confirm their safety.

It is claimed that there is a very high degree of similarity between gelatin that comes from a cow, a pig, and a human and hence the pioneers do not see any health risk to it. The fact that people have been ingesting gelatin for many years does not guarantee that human derived counterpart would behave the same way. It is being pointed out that human-derived gelatin is already in use by the pharmaceutical industry in the manufacture of certain pills and vaccines. Probably the highly controlled production techniques under laboratory conditions may offer a more consistent product than "traditional" gelatin. Also cited is the current practice of using human genes by pharmaceutical firms in the production of human  insulin for diabetics, human growth hormone, and erythropoietin, which is used to treat anemia. Using stem cells for experiments however beneficial it may turn out to be, is a divisive issue with religious connotations and probably such products may never find universal acceptance in all parts of the world.


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