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The Dangers of Gelatin

Collagen is a fibrous insoluble protein that makes up a major portion of bone, skin and connective tissue. By cooking animal bones (including fish bones) one can extract some of the collagen from the bones.  The most common form that collagen is marketed in is its partially hydrolyzed state: gelatin.

Gelatin is commonly used in making jellylike confections. However, the usefulness of gelatin goes beyond that. Gelatin is fat free, yet its smooth texture is similar to that of fat. Consequently, gelatin is very useful as an additive to foods that are marketed as low fat, or fat free.  Gelatin also acts as an emulsifier helping to distribute fat and add stability to confections. This is helpful in toffees or in frostings, creams, yogurts and ice creams. Adding gelatin can make a candy last longer as gelatin does not break down as quickly as sugars do. This makes the addition of gelatin ideal for throat lozenges. Similarly hard sugar glazes will stay white and not run when gelatin is added. Gelatin can hold shape when aerated to create light and fluffy marshmallows. In vitamins and medicines gelatin can be used as a coating to cover a bitter taste or as a capsule to contain the powders. Some use plain gelatin as a protein supplement to their diet. All in all, gelatin is remarkably versatile and ideal for the manufacture of many processed foods and confections.

As mentioned before, gelatin is made by extracting the collagen from the bones and skins of animals (including fish). Most commonly, the gelatin made from animal products is not being manufactured from kasher animals. Very simply, then, most gelatins manufactured are not kasher.  However, the issue for people who rely on Rabbinic certifications goes deeper than this.  To get at the issues for these individuals, we must understand the Rabbinic Halakhot surrounding gelatin. 

First off, everyone (Rabbanites and Karaites) is in agreement that the Torah prohibits eating the meat of those animals or fish designated as tame’.  While our methods of slaughter differ (and will not be discussed here), both Rabbanites and Karaites agree that meat of an animal which is tahor and is not properly slaughtered is tame’ and prohibited by the Torah. Here is where we part ways.  For Karaites, the matter is as simple as this:  Any animal which is tame’ is prohibited.  This includes any part of that animal, skin, bones, nails, et cetera.  Here is where the Rabbanites differ.  Here is where the problem creeps in.

The Rabbanites permit the consumption of certain portions of a non-kasher animal.  Very simply they have created laws that permit them to eat what is tame’.  Let us look for a moment at how the Rabbanites approach this issue.  When dealing with whether or not it is kasher to use as food a non-kasher animal, the Rabbanites ask the following questions:

Does processing alter the status of meat?
First a brief bit of background:  Rabbanites prohibit the eating of meat and milk together to any extent.  Karaites only prohibit the cooking of a kid in its mother’s milk.

In Rabbinic literature, the Shulhan ‘Arukh, we find the question above discussed in Yoreh De‘ah (87:10). Cheese curd used to be made by adding the lining of a calf’s stomach to milk, or by letting the milk sit in a calf’s stomach (rennet is an enzyme derived from the stomach of calves). The ReMA states that where the stomach has been salted and dried to the extent that is like a piece of wood, if milk is added to it, it is permitted to use the resulting cheese. Normally, under Rabbinic law if meat and milk came in contact with each other in this manner, both the meat and milk would be prohibited.  In this line, the SHaKH notes that although one may use the milk products, it is not proper to do this intentionally. The Peri Megadim notes that the ReMA’s leniency applies specifically to the stomach of an animal (which has less meat flavor) and not to regular meat. The Peri Megadim adds that the ReMA allowed this only where the stomach was removed from the milk after a short time and not heated with the milk. If the stomach stays for a period of over 24 hours or is heated with the milk, it will absorb meat flavor and be prohibited.  All of this goes to show that the Rabbanites will permit the consumption of something they consider tame’ as long as that tame’ substance has undergone a “transformation,” in this case they consider the cow’s stomach to be legally wood, and not cow!

The statements above were made in reference to dried kasher meat parts. Does this same principle in Rabbanism apply to non-kasher meats, or other forbidden foods? There is a Rabbanite rule that states; "that which comes out of an unclean source remains unclean". If so, one would expect the Rabbanites to say that the by-products of a tame’ (non-kasher) animal retain their tame’ status.  Let’s see…

Are hides considered meat?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein addressed this issue in Iggerot Mosheh (vol.1 #37). There he writes that hides are not considered meat by Torah Law. However, they are prohibited with milk by Rabbinic law. If they are dried and processed, the gelatin that comes out is not included in this Rabbinic prohibition. Therefore, gelatin produced from kasher slaughtered animal hides may be intentionally used with milk, provided that the hides are cleaned to remove any meat residue. There are opinions that disagree with Feinstein’s conclusion:  notably, Rabbi Aharon Kotler.  Rabbi Kotler concludes that gelatin produced from kasher hides is considered meat. However, the Rabbanites maintain that there is room for leniency when dealing with gelatin derived from kasher hides as the gelatin has little or no taste.  Because the gelatin has little or no taste, they maintain, it can be nullified in pareve ingredients resulting in a pareve product.  However, gelatin from non-kasher hides retains its prohibited status.

Do the bones of a non-kasher animal carry the same prohibition as the meat?

This question is discussed in Yoreh De‘ah (99). The Shulhan ‘Arukh maintains that bones of a prohibited, non-kasher animal are kasher and would in fact count as part of the permitted food to constitute a majority of sixty kasher parts. The ReMA maintains that although the bones themselves are not prohibited they do not count as part of the kasher percentage when mixed with other kasher food. The SHaKH quotes the strict view that the moisture in bones of non-kasher animals is not kasher. Only dry bones are viewed as kasher. Some rabbinic authorities interpret the collagen as being part of the natural liquid of the bone which the SHaKH prohibited.

It should be noted that even the Shulhan ‘Arukh was only talking about the actual bone itself not the marrow of the bone, which is treated as meat and is prohibited. Furthermore, if the bone was already cooked with non-kasher meat or bone-marrow, it becomes unkasher.

As you may have deduced from the above information, Rabbanite certified “kasher” gelatin may be produced from a non-kasher animal bone!  According to their rules, this may only be done with cleaned and dried bone without any marrow or soft tissue.  But the point remains:  Rabbinicly certified “kasher” gelatin may be tame’!  With all due respect to the Rabbanites, their authorities note that one should refrain from consuming gelatin from a non-kasher animal; and they claim that their reputable certifying organizations do not participate in this kind of behavior.  However, it doesn’t detract from the fact that one should not rely on Rabbinically certified kasher products if they contain gelatin.

Gelatin Substitutes
There are many gelatin substitutes that are not animal or fish based which have similar properties to gelatin and can serve in its stead. Common among them are Agar Agar, and Carrageenan made from sea vegetation. Agar Agar or Kanten, is derived from a red algae known as Gelidium comeum. Agar Agar has strong setting properties like gelatin. In fact unlike gelatin, which needs refrigeration to set, Agar Agar will gel at room temperature. Gels made from Agar Agar are affected by acidity more than gelatin. Thus one may find fruity deserts made with Agar Agar likely to turn watery. Carrageenan also known as Irish Moss is a reddish purple seaweed. Its jell is not as stiff as gelatin or Agar Agar but it is quite useful as an emulsifier or as a gelling or thickening additive. There are other vegetable derivatives that can serve as gelatin replacements as stabilizers, emulsifiers or thickeners. Pectin, used in jams and jellies, is a complex carbohydrate extracted from apple pulp and citrus rinds. There are many other vegetable gums that can be used. Amongst them are the gums of Guar, Carob, Gum Arabic, Tragacanth, and Karaya. Guar is a legume commonly found in Pakistan and India. Gum Arabic is derived from Acacia trees found in Sudan and West Africa, and Locust Bean Gums extracted from Carob beans common to the Middle-East and the Mediterranean. Tragacanth gum is gathered from the breaks in the bark of the Astragalus shrub common to Asia. Karaya or Sterculia gum is from the Sterculia tree found in India. Xanthan Gum is produced by the microbial fermentation of a carbohydrate with the Xanthomonas campestris organism.

Gelatin Substitutes

Agar Agar
Carrageenan

Gums & Thickeners

Gum Arabic
Carob
Guar
Karaya
Pectin
Tragacanth
Xanthan Gum