By now, you've probably heard about the many benefits of collagen for your body and for your skin. One thing you might have heard as well, though, is that gelatin is very similar to collagen. Gelatin, the stuff that makes pudding and jello. How can something that goes into such unhealthy treats be similar to the protein superfood? Let's discuss it.
What is Collagen?
First off, a quick refresher. What, specifically, is collagen?
Collagen is the primary protein found in connective tissue, bones, and skin. It's the most prolific protein in the human body, making up as much as a quarter of the protein in your body.
Collagen is also not one protein, but many. In fact, there are 28 different types of protein collectively known as collagen, and scientists are still occasionally identifying more. They're generally divided up into specific categories, called Types, which you can read about in detail.
Pretty much every form of collagen is healthy and beneficial to consume, but each specific type may have different benefits to different parts of the body. For example, Type II collagen mostly goes to promote joint health, while Type I collagen is the type most beneficial to the skin, as well as blood vessels and organs.
Collagen degrades over time. Your body replaces it, but as you get older, it's not replaced as quickly or effectively. Sun exposure – and UV damage primarily – also destroys collagen, forcing your body to produce more of it to maintain your skin. This is why collagen supplements are often recommended as part of beauty supplement regimens as you age. It won't do much if you're in your 20s, but as you hit your 40s and older, it's much better to use.
Collagen comes primarily from animal products, and is almost entirely found within connective tissues, skin, and less edible portions of a creature like hooves. You may notice that many of these are undesirable; you don't often want to chow down on some gristle or hooves, and skin isn't always left with the meat you purchase.
Most collagen supplements come in one of two forms: a powder or a broth. Broth comes from bones, boiled to make a stock, to which additional ingredients can be added to make a hearty beverage. Powdered supplements typically come from skin, usually cow hide, which is hydrolyzed.
What is Gelatin?
Now let's talk about gelatin. You may be familiar with the stuff if you've ever baked something, made a pudding, or created another kind of dessert. Gelatin usually comes in a powder, though it may come in sheets – more often seen in Europe – which have different usage instructions. They're all basically the same thing, though, just processed and stored in different forms.
Gelatin is basically collagen, processed into a slightly different form. When you take the connective tissues, the skin, the hooves, the bones, and other high-collagen pieces of an animal, and you want to extract some value out of them, you boil them.
Boiling animal products that contain a lot of collagen in them will release that collagen, in a way. Long, slow heating causes collagen proteins to unwind and unravel in a process called denaturing. The collagen dissolves into a liquid and changes form. When the resulting liquid cools, it firms up into a jello-like substance, which is gelatin.
If you've ever roasted a turkey or a large chunk of meat with skin on it, you've probably encountered this. When you first pull the meat out of the oven, there's plenty of liquid drippings, but later once it has all cooled, it has "congealed" into a gelatin.
Pure gelatin is absolutely tasteless protein. The gelatin you get as a side effect from cooking a roast won't be tasteless, because it's not pure.
Gelatin is commonly used in desserts for its ability to set into a jello-style gel. It's also used in recipes like soup, to give the meal a hearty and thicker mouth-feel. Since gelatin is tasteless, it goes in both sweet and savory dishes.
Is Gelatin Good For You?
Since gelatin is a culinary ingredient rather than a supplement, and since it is denatured compared to collagen, you might wonder if it's any good for you any more. After all, there are plenty of foods that, when cooked thoroughly, lose most of their nutrients. If you're just breaking down the value the collagen has, what purpose does the gelatin serve?
Thankfully, the answer is yes, gelatin is food for you. At least, on its own. We're not telling you to go out and eat a bunch of pudding to heal your skin, you'll be doing more damage with the sugars and other ingredients along the way.
Collagen in its whole form is good for you. Collagen can be broken down into gelatin, which has the same general benefits for your body as collagen. Collagen can also be further broken down through the process of hydrolyzation, forming even smaller molecules typically called collagen hydrolysate, or even collagen peptides. These are even smaller than gelatin, but still pack the same value.
The Primary Differences Between Collagen and Gelatin
While the health benefits are basically the same, there are a few differences between collagen and gelatin. It all comes down to the fact that gelatin is a gel-like substance at room temperature. It dissolves when heated, and gels up when cooled.
Collagen doesn't behave this way, either in large-molecule form or in peptide form. Collagen is more water soluble and heat-stable, so it can dissolve into anything from a cold smoothie to a cup of hot coffee.
Both forms of protein are flavorless, so they won't interrupt or interact with whatever you're adding them to. Gelatin is simply used in recipes for its texture effects, while collagen is used as a supplement because it can be added to anything easily.
The Benefits of Gelatin
The benefits of gelatin are much the same as the benefits of collagen, so we won't be covering them in deep detail.
Still, it's worth giving you an overview of what it brings to the table – both literally and figuratively – in case you're curious and don't want to read elsewhere.
- Collagen is one of the main ingredients in skin, keeping it elastic and supple. Gelatin and collagen both include the proteins that your body uses to produce collagen and use it to repair your skin. As you hit about age 35, your body no longer produces more collagen than breaks down. You live in equilibrium for a while, but production slows, so degradation accelerates. By taking collagen supplements, you can slow the loss and keep your skin looking younger for longer.
- Gelatin may have other skin benefits as well. In addition to basic elasticity, collagen and collagen-gelatin mixtures can help with skin cracking and dryness. It's not exactly going to cure eczema or anything, but if you're been experiencing more skin dryness and cracking as you age, taking a collagen or gelatin supplement can help.
- Collagen, and thus gelatin, can have some wound healing properties. We're not advocating dipping a papercut in a batch of bone broth, but taking some collagen supplements as part of your diet can help you heal from things like exercise and stress more readily. There isn't as much evidence for this as there is for the skin benefits, but it's still worth trying.
- Gelatin can ease joint pain. In this case, you have to be particular with the kind of gelatin you get, because it needs to be made of the Type II kinds of collagen. This collagen is the kind that works on joint lubrication in the form of connective tissues, ligaments, and cartilage. Getting more collagen or gelatin in your diet will help you alleviate some forms of joint pain, specifically those caused by the breakdown of connective tissues.
- Gelatin can help fight osteoporosis. As you age, your bones lose some density. There are many reasons for this – and the condition tends to affect women more than men – and there are a lot of treatments available for bone conditions. Collagen supplements and gelatin as a regular part of your diet can help provide the scaffold needed for your body to heal bones using other nutrients, like calcium, you get from other sources.
- Collagen is a primary component in hair and nail health and production. Keeping your hair supple and resilient reduces split ends and hair loss. Collagen also keeps nails more supple, which helps minimize cracking and broken nails.
There's also a growing body of evidence to suggest that taking collagen supplements or gelatin, particularly in soups or broth form, can help a lot with digestive issues. Collagen supplements can help balance out gut flora and assist with digestive diseases, like leaky gut. There may also be benefits for the autoimmune system, though these are less tested.
Which Should You Pick? Collagen or Gelatin?
There's no clear answer here, because both collagen and gelatin have the same potential health benefits. It all comes down on how you want to get your collagen and how you want to use it.
Collagen in its purest form comes primarily from meat broth and is most concentrated in bone broth. You can use these broths on their own as a hearty beverage, or you can use them as the base for a soup recipe. These soups are especially hearty and filling, and can be very pleasant as a beverage or meal on a cold winter day.
You can buy bone broth as a stand-alone beverage or ingredient, or you can make it yourself. Recipes abound for making your own bone broth, but they all basically just involve cooking some high-collagen meat on low heat for a long time, to extract as much collagen as possible.
Collagen supplements can be purchased readily and typically come in powder form. You can add these to pretty much anything you want and they won't have much of an effect, except for the added health benefits. Here are some suggestions:
- Add a spoonful to your morning coffee. It will dissolve readily and it won't gel up like gelatin would, so you'll barely notice it's there.
- Add some collagen to a meal replacement smoothie. This addition might give your smoothie a bit more body without affecting the flavor, and will add a bunch of healthy amino acids to your diet.
- Add a bit of collagen to any stew, curry, or other recipe you want to make. Really, a spoonful of collagen powder can go in pretty much anything.
The only thing we wouldn't recommend is just eating it with a spoon, and even then it's more because there's nothing to it but the texture of a powder, so it's not really pleasant.
As for gelatin, well, recipes are everywhere online for desserts that use it, but you're not going to be baking a batch of brownies or making up a bunch of marshmallows for the health benefits. Instead, try making gummy candies if you want something sweet. You can also use a bit of gelatin in soups and stews to thicken it and make it smoother and heartier. The choice is yours.
Another option is collagelatin, which is a mixture of both collagen and gelatin. This can be added to more foods without thickening them too much. There's not really any benefit of taking this mixture over one or the other, but if you want to give it a try, we won't blame you.