Monday 25 July 2011

Soylent Green Jello

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article about scientists in China making human gelatin.  My first reaction was “EEEWWW!”   My second was “WHY?!”

Apparently this human gelatin is not quite Soylent Green, nor is it in fact called “human gelatin.”   Recombinant gelatin is the correct term.  To make it, human gelatin genes are injected into a variety of yeast.  The yeast then produces recombinant gelatin with controllable features.[1]

One argument for using this recombinant gelatin process is that the animal gelatins we currently use can carry infectious diseases, such as BSE (Mad Cow Disease).  Animal gelatins also vary in consistency from batch to batch, posing challenges for manufacturers.[2]

If you are interested finding out more about the arguments in favour of using recombinant gelatin, some are presented at

Even having read the arguments in favour of making and using recombinant gelatin, I find myself conjuring nightmare images from old science fiction movies.  You know: frightening tales like “Species” about the perils of crossing humankind with other species, even on a single cell level. 

My admittedly emotional response to this subject is not eased by my disquiet at the location of the research.  It’s being done in China; home of massive industrial pollution, and a conscience-free user of agricultural chemicals.  Many foods produced and packaged in China have been found to contain carcinogens and chemicals banned for use here in North America. I mean—really—we’re talking about a place were melons explode in the field due to excessive application of growth hormone![3]

If there are concerns about carrying infectious diseases in animal gelatin, why not look for a substitute in the plant world?  There are any number of them out there: pectin, agar-agar, and carrageenan to name but three.

Manufacturers of animal gelatin have been producing a consistent product by means of batch testing for decades now.  This process of testing and adjustment has been sufficient to yield gelatin of consistent enough quality for widespread use throughout the food and pharmaceutical industries.  When scientists say that they are striving to improve consistency through controllable gelatin, I take that to mean that they are striving to reduce costs to the manufacturer, not to improve the quality of gelatin itself.

We don’t have to worry about recombinant gelatin showing up in products on our grocery shelves in the immediate future:  There is still research to be done and it will take some time to scale up for commercial production.  If you, like me, have concerns about consuming it in the future, start writing letters now to ensure that product labeling will list it specifically, as different from animal gelatin.

I think I’m going to dig out my Victorian cookbooks to see what I can find out about making gelled desserts from pectin.


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