Gelatine

Gelatine is written with or without an ‘e’ at the end of the word. Before it got unclassified as an additive, gelling agent or emulsifier, its number was E441. It is now considered as a food in its own right and therefore needs to be listed separately as an ingredient on packaged food articles.


As its name indicates, gelatine is used to gel. It lands up in many unexpected items ranging from gummy candies, to a binder in matchstick heads and sandpaper, to a sizing agent in paper and a component of inkjet coatings, and even India ink. However, most people commonly associate gelatine with jelly and capsules.


Gelatine is extensively used by the food (jelly, gelling agent in cooking, a carrier, coating or separating agent in packaged foods), pharmaceutical (capsules, X-rays, imaging, mammographic and scanner films), photography and printing (film rolls, bromide, inkjet photo and crêpe papers, and graphic arts films), aerial films, and cosmetic (hydrolyzed collagen, styling gel,) industries. No different to hide glue, it is derived from connective tissues, skin and bone of slaughtered animals such as cattle, horses, pigs, poultry and even fish. Hide glue is called saras/vajjram. Few know is commonly used for binding, e.g. ledgers. It is sold in slabs that look like hard chocolate, and is cheap. The slabs are required to be put into hot water to melt and the resultant glue is used.

Gelignite (commonly known as gelatin sticks) is an explosive made of collodion-cotton (nitrocellulose or guncotton) dissolved in either nitroglycerine or nitroglycol and mixed with wood pulp and saltpetre (sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate) making it highly flammable. Fish have died in rivers where gelatine sticks were dumped and found.


In 2015, following bans on slaughter of cows and calves being extended to bulls and bullocks along with criminalisation, gelatine manufacturers got worried (despite claiming to have been using buffalo bones) because they would no long be able to utilise cow bones. India’s Rs 5,000 crore capsules industry happened to be one of the leading exporters. Ironically, under India’s Export Policy 2012 “beef of cows, oxen and calf” is prohibited but gelatine and glues derived from bones and hides, as well as leather, are placed in the “free” (allowed) category. Then in January 2017, the export of gelatine, empty gelatine capsules (not for human consumption), glues derived from bones, hides, etc. including fish glues, and similar items to the European Union was allowed subject to a ‘Shipment Clearance Certificate’ and a ‘Production Process Certificate’ which is actually a formality required for all Animal By-Products exported from India to the EU.

 

Paper coated with gelatine makes it water resistant and gives it a high gloss. Currency notes are made of starch and textile fibres (like cotton, linen, abaca, balsam) infused with gelatine or polyvinyl alcohol to give them extra strength; and, the security thread in silver or green is polymer. In 2016 due to demonetisation, India imported 20,000 tonnes (far higher than the approximate 8,000 tonnes imported earlier) of currency paper for printing from abroad. The Bank Note Paper Mill India Pvt Ltd, a joint venture between Security Printing & Minting Corporation of India Ltd (a PSU under Ministry of Finance) and Bharatiya Reserve Bank Note Mudran Pvt Ltd (a subsidiary of RBI) established in 2010 at Mysuru also manufactures about 25,000 tonnes of currency paper annually.


Vegans, vegetarians, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and others continue to be outraged after the Bank of England confirmed in November 2016 that “there is a trace of tallow in the polymer pellets used in the base substrate of the polymer 5 notes”. Non-vegetarians and some others justified the use of animal fat by saying polymer notes contain trivial amounts of tallow also found in candles and soap, instead of demanding that candles and soap should also not contain animal fat.


Manufacturing Process


World production of gelatine is about 3,75,000 tons a year. The basic manufacturing process consists of removal of impurities, dilution with hot water and acid to extract hydrolyze collagen, followed by several steps to refine and obtain dry brittle, translucent sheets or leaves that are light yellow, almost tasteless and odourless. It is also made into a powder.

For gelatine made from bovine bones they need to be SRM free (i.e. Specified Risk Material free bones). They are kept to dry in the bone stocking shed for some time, then washed in hot water to remove dirt and grease after which they are soaked in weak acid for a week to dissolve calcium and phosphorous. This solution is precipitated in lime to obtain Di Calcium Phosphate. After the removal of calcium and phosphorous the bones become soft like hide called ossein which is put in pits for liming for 50 days. The ossein is then washed in water and acid to neutralize the lime after which it is ready to be cooked for the extraction of gelatine.

For gelatine made from bovine hides, they are first washed in water and put in liming pits for 45 days so they swell, soften and breakdown. They are then washed again, fat removed and neutralised in acid before being cooked for the extraction of gelatine.

Thereafter the process of gelatine extraction, whether from hides or bones (ossein), is the same. It is cooked in stainless steel vessels and the weak broth like extract is filtered, fat removed, demineralised and concentrated in an evaporator into liquid gelatine. Ph value, temperature, concentration of liquor is constantly monitored. The concentrated gelatine extract is then chilled into a jelly which is extruded into noodles and dried in a dehumidified air dryer. It is tested for strength, viscosity, colour, transparency, ash, and microbiological parameters such as bacteria, salmonella, e-coli etc. before being blended, crushed and packed as per customers’ specifications.


To use it, gelatine needs to be first dissolved in boiling water and cooled. The most well-known gelatine food product is jelly, followed by marshmallows. However, some yogurts, certain desserts, and a few ice creams can contain it too. Aspic is what gelatine is called when made at home. It is a non-veg broth that has gelled.

 

Whether food grade/edible or not, gelatine is always of animal origin. Green or fresh bones (those that are not brittle) derived from young, healthy, slaughtered animals, mainly cattle, are crushed and sold to the gelatine industry for processing.

Given the fact that the Livestock Census of 2019 stated that India had only 1,20,000 donkeys left, when around October 2021 as many as 125 donkeys from Maharashtra’s Parli’s brick kilns went missing, BWC strongly suspected they were kidnapped and killed to meet the demand of Ejiao which is gelatine made from the hides of donkeys by the Chinese. Donkey hides are also smuggled out to China from other countries.

Time and again, it has been reported that donkeys are missing and there are valid reasons to believe that they have been butchered for their hides which are legally and illegally exported to China to make gelatine, whereas their meat is locally sold although donkeys are not allowed to be slaughtered and it is illegal to consume donkey meat. BWC therefore approached the Animal Welfare Board of India and asked them to make animal welfare organisations aware of these facts so that they are alert. We also suggested that the AWBI should strongly recommend that the Government of India bans the export of donkeys and their hides/skins.


Replacements


In practice there is no such thing as ‘vegetable gelatine’ even though an additional dictionary definition is “similar substance” because the use of gelatine can be replaced in certain applications by vegetable gums.


Commercially made vegetarian jelly has been selling in India for many years. Seaweeds such as China grass/agar-agar, marine algae and carrageenan, as well as pectin, konjac, guar gum and cellulose from plants, can easily replace gelatine jelly crystals. (Incidentally, there is a huge worldwide shortage of agar or red gold which is quite essential for culture media by biology labs. It needs to be harvested from the wild and countries have imposed restrictions due to over-harvesting. However, the Central Salt & Marine Chemicals Research Institute, Bhavnagar, has developed mariculture of Gelidiella acerosa which can yield sufficient agar if undertaken on a large scale.)


Vegetarians know, but may choose to ignore that capsules are made of gelatine and therefore non-vegetarian. Pharmaceutical (and photographic) grade gelatines are generally made from bones of cattle. Powders are filled in hard capsule shells where as soft-shell/softgel ones are used for liquids, but breaking them open and swallowing the contents does not absolve us of their use.


Some times when veg ingredients like flaxseed is filled in gelatine capsules, the impression given by marketers is that the product is veg, whereas it isn’t.

 

Vegetarian capsules were patented in 1950, but it was in 1989 that they began being sold under the Vegicaps trademark. Made of Hydroxyl-Propyl Methyl-Cellulose (HPMC) a semi-synthetic inert material produced from water and cellulose (cellulose is a complex carbohydrate found in green plants, wood, etc), in addition to the veg aspect, these HPMC capsules are much more suitable than gelatine capsules particularly for liquid and gel fillings.

 

Our campaign against the use of gelatine capsules worked: citing reasons such as religious, cultural, personal issues as well as BSE (mad cow disease) related to consuming gelatine which can only be derived from cows, pigs and fish, in July 2015, an expert panel decided in principle to replace gelatine capsules with cellulose capsules. The Scientific Committee advising the Drug Controller General of India with a view to gradually phase out gelatine capsules, allowed manufacturers to use either gelatine or HPMC capsule shells. It would be in their own interest to indicate veg/non-veg for chemists to distinguish and appropriately cater to their customers’ preferences. Vegetarian capsules (comparatively no different) are available but since they are more expensive, they weren’t readily used by pharmaceutical companies, but now they will be because of a growing demand based on awareness.

 

In 2017 pharmaceutical manufacturers continued to resist the use of veg capsules because non-veg ones were cheaper – 95 to 98% capsules were from gelatine. BWC therefore wrote to the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare that it would be foolish to waste time and money "scientifically" proving non-veg ones are unsafe or not. What needed to be done right away was to stop gelatine derived from cattle and pigs being shoved down the throats of vegetarian and/or religious persons. Humulin used by most diabetics was invented 35 years ago as an alternative to insulin derived from pigs and cattle. Similarly, veg capsules should replace gelatine capsules. In response the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India, invited BWC in August 2017 to give a presentation at New Delhi to the Chairman & Members of the Expert Committee for replacement of gelatine capsules with cellulose capsules. See here.


BWC was again invited (third meeting of this Committee) to give another presentation in November 2017. See here.


In all probability, whether gelatine or not, all capsules any way have some thing of animal origin filled in them because there has been no compulsion for the medicine or nutritional supplements to be declared as veg or non-veg.


In short, gelatine is a widely used and not so hidden a product which we need to watch out for, more so, if we have reverence for cows.

Page last updated on 08/11/21