ChiloquinNews article 3/26/2012

Collagen is a fibrous protein that makes up almost one-third of all the protein in the human body. It strengthens the body’s connective tissues and allows them to be elastic, that is, to stretch without breaking. Gelatin is made up of collagen protein which has been broken into smaller pieces (peptides) so that they can be digested easily when eaten.

Collagen doesn’t dissolve in water in its natural form, so it must be modified to make gelatin. The top four commercial sources of gelatin are bones, cowhide, pork skin, and fish skin. Manufacturers grind the parts and treat them with either a strong acid or a strong base to dissolve the collagen. That mixture is boiled, then washed and filtered repeatedly. The large collagen protein ends up being partially broken down; the resulting product is a gelatin solution. The solution is chilled into a jelly-like material, cut and dried, then ground to a powder. Today, the gelatin in Jell-O is most likely to come from pigskin. Gelatin from bone is used mostly for pharmaceutical purposes.  Gelatin from fish skin is mainly used by those people who cannot eat pork or beef , usually for religious reasons.  As a dry powder, gelatin is very stable, and can be stored in air-tight containers for years with no loss in quality.


Until the mid-nineteenth century, making gelatin was really a task. Calves’ feet were boiled in a large kettle for several hours, then the liquid strained and the bones discarded. After setting for 24 hours, a layer of fat would rise to the top which was skimmed off and discarded. Sweeteners and flavorings were added to the liquid and it was poured into molds and allowed to set.  By the 1840s, 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. He 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.


Gelatin does not occur freely in nature, and cannot be recovered from horns, hoofs and other non-collagen containing parts of animals. There are no plant sources of gelatin, and there is no chemical relationship between gelatin and other materials referred to as vegetable gelatin, such as seaweed extracts.

Gelatin has many uses:


     In Food: It is used in gelatin desserts and confections such as marshmallows and gummi-candies, protein drinks, protein energy bars, as a binding and/or glazing agent in meat and aspics. It is also used to clarify beer and wine. It is used in fat-reduced foods to simulate the mouth-feel of fat and to create volume without adding calories.


     Pharmaceutical Uses: The shells of hard and soft capsules, tablets, granulation, suppositories, dietary/health supplements.


     Cosmetic Uses: It is the “hydrolyzed animal protein” in shampoos, conditioners, lipsticks, and fingernail formulas, and a collagen source in topical creams.


     In Photography: It is used to hold silver halide crystals in an emulsion in virtually all photographic films and photographic papers.


     In Ballistics: Ballistic & Ordnance Gelatin is used by law enforcement, military, and ammunition manufacturers for testing purposes due to its simulation of human body density. (Don’t visualize this!)


     Other Uses:


     It was first used as an external surface sizing for paper in 1337. Now it is sometimes found in glossy printing papers, artistic papers, playing cards, and it maintains the wrinkles in crêpe paper.


     Animal glues such as hide glue are essentially unrefined gelatin.


     Gelatin is closely related to bone glue and is used as a binder in match heads and sandpaper.


     Certain professional and theatrical lighting equipment use color gels to change the beam color. These were historically made with gelatin, hence the term color gel.


Although gelatin is sometimes referred to as a low quality food protein because it does not contain all the essential amino acids, it does contain an exceptionally high content of two amino acids which play an important part in collagen formation; proline and glycine. In fact, it takes 43 grams of dried egg whites or 89 grams of lean beef to equal the amount of proline in just 10 grams of gelatin. Though the body can form these two amino acids on its own, it has been suggested that at times the rate of synthesis may not be high enough to counter the degradation of collagen, thus resulting in a steady loss of body collagen. Eating gelatin appears to be a way to get enough of these important amino acids to the chondrocytes (cartilage producing cells) and osteoblasts (bone forming cells) of the body. Although chondrocytes are critical for collagen formation, their number is limited and their ability to form this much needed protein is influenced by heredity, age, physical activity (too little or too much), injury, and availability of nutrients. As we age, our bodies make less collagen, and individual collagen fibers become increasingly cross-linked with each other. You might experience this as stiff joints from less flexible tendons, or wrinkles due to loss of skin elasticity.


Although bone metabolism is complex and not fully understood, there are some small studies showing that the intake of just 10 grams per day of gelatin is effective in reducing pain, improving mobility and overall bone and cartilage health. Several randomized, double-blind, crossover trials have shown improvements in symptoms related to joint pain. See for a summary of the studies.


There is some concern about the safety of gelatin because it comes from animal sources. Some people are worried that the prion that causes mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) will not be inactivated by the extraction process should it be present in the bones. This is a very low risk and in the end it boils down to whether you’d trade that risk for relief of constant pain. It’s an individual decision.


Scientists are very wary of anecdotal stories about the effects of taking supplements and with good reason. Some I read were simply preposterous. 10 grams of gelatin is the equivlent of about 2 full bowls of jello. One person, after eating ½ bowl each day for a couple of weeks got impatient and ate a whole bowl, only to wake up the next morning totally pain free! So be very skeptical, and with that in mind, here is my anecdotal story.


About 2 years ago I started getting a few sharp pulls in the left groin as though I’d pulled a tendon. Then it progressed to constant pulls and I had to give up walking and gardening, and just sit around all day. I had 4 rounds of prolotherapy and that helped for a while. By then a year had passed, and just as the next gardening season rolled around it got worse again, so I had hip X-rays and a back MRI. The hip showed bone spurs, which might  be removed arthroscopically but there is no arthroscopic hip surgeon in southern Oregon. So off I went to Lake Tahoe where I had a hip MRI and was told that although there were bone spurs there was also too much damage to the soft tissue already for arthroscopic surgery to be successful. I was sent back to Oregon to get a hip replacement. Another gardening season lost.  So all my friends said “great, hips are easy to replace. Just get it done and you’ll be on your feet in no time”.  Now I know that’s true, but as a veteran of 5 knee surgeries, 1 shoulder and 1 wrist surgery, I just didn’t want any more! 

Winter was coming on so I had time to experiment before the next gardening season. I started taking 2 tablespoons (20 grams) of gelatin each day. I bought it online in a 5 lb bag. I tried the recommended ways of mixing it, but couldn’t stand it when it congealed in the glass, so now I quickly stir a tablespoon of it into a glass of juice and drink it down before it has a chance to swell up. I do that twice/day. Last week I started on the second 5 lb bag.


So for 6 weeks I didn’t notice anything much except that my skin was better than it used to be. Fingernails still break though. Now, after 8 weeks I’m happy to report that I spent a whole 2 days over in Phoenix (Oregon) last week, digging holes, shoveling gravel, carrying bricks, raking, pruning and walking all day, and I am just fine J. Now my hip still bothers me at times. It is by no means ‘fixed’. But I can do things again and I haven’t had to go under the knife for the 8th time. So I’m a happy camper.



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