Has Gelatin Always Been a Big Deal?
By Stephanie Benson
Many of us were first exposed to gelatin through a Jell-O jiggler, or, for the more adventurous kids, through glue! However, neither Jell-O nor glue is something typically associated with optimal nutrition or healing. Yet, the key ingredient in both of these is gelatin - which historically has been a key cooking ingredient and a medical remedy used in cultures around the world. Over the centuries, gelatin has been used for treating health conditions from digestive problems to bone and muscle weaknesses. Traditional peoples would simply simmer the bones, connective tissue, and other proteinaceous parts of animals in one large pot, for maybe a day or two, until a thick, rich broth formed. Today, there is a lot of attention on bone broth and making sure it gels by including joints from the animal, or by adding a product such as Great Lakes Gelatin to the stockpot. Entrepreneurs and restaurateurs are taking this trend, once associated with the Paleo movement and traditional foodies, mainstream. But where - and when - did our focus on this nutrient-dense superfood first begin?
To truly understand how gelatin has nourished people around the world for centuries, one must first look at our resourceful Paleolithic ancestors. During the Paleo era, hunting and slaughtering an animal could turn into a life-threatening event, so using every part of the animal - and buying some time until the next hunt - was a priority. Every part had a purpose, from the vitamin-dense organs and fat to the animal's protein in its bone marrow and bones, the latter of which would be consumed after being ground up using rocks. Paleolithic people may not have been unable to identify all the vital minerals and amino acids that this demanding process awarded them, but their instincts clearly guided them wisely. The resulting powder was not gelatin as we now know it, but its raw precursor.
How to get nutrient-dense gelatin without a loincloth and spear
Fast forward to the birth of agriculture, over 12,000 years ago, and those rocks were tossed aside for more sophisticated culinary techniques. Annie Dru, CCE, is a PPNF board member and teaches classes on traditional food preparation. She states: "When we became agrarian and started farming and domesticating animals and putting in crops, we changed the way that we ingested bone matter. We went from pounding bones [with rocks] to simmering them in water and allowing all the nutrients to be released into the solution. That's when stock was born." This simmering process is what yields the viscous by-product we call gelatin (taken from the Latin gelatus, meaning "frozen" or "stiff"). Offering a thick, rich, and satisfying quality, gelatin eventually became an important foundation to the cuisine of many nations.
One of the first pieces of evidence of widespread gelatin use is with the ancient Egyptians - though it's not clear they consumed it as much as used it as a type of adhesive for painting, and other functions. However, an even earlier form of glue, carbon dated to over 8,000 years ago, was found in a cave near the Dead Sea. More archaeological proof shows that this technical form of gelatin would be used, and improved, by various societies through the ages, from the Native Americans to the Polynesians. Moving along to the 12th century, Egyptian Jewish physician Moses Maimonides would prescribe chicken broth (aka Jewish penicillin) to treat colds, a simple formula that is still used today. Chicken stock and bone broth remains one of the world's cheapest flu and cold remedies, with pieces such as chicken feet being a favorite ingredient for maximum gelatinousness.
Gelatin as medicine in ancient China
Culinary usages of gelatin and broth are difficult to prove, though, according to Gelatin in Nutrition and Medicine: "Reference to [gelatin's] use as a hemostatic agent in China in the first century is found in the writings of San Han Ron (204 AD)… Homberger also referred to its use in China and Japan during the first century for stopping nose bleeding by inhaling the powdered form, and for 'bleeding of the stomach, the urogenital organs, the uterus, the intestines and the rectum.'" It isn’t until later in history that we see the ubiquitousness of gelatin and broth in different cultures’ cuisines.
Japanese miso and the mysterious Umami taste
Japan’s long-preferred cooking base of choice, called dashi, most commonly uses the carcasses and heads of fish, which contribute essential minerals such as iodine to the mix. Niboshi dashi, for example, is made from soaking small dried sardines in water, and is often the gelatinous base for miso soup, helping to naturally create that oh-so-elusive umami taste. Historical references show that the Japanese have been boiling fish heads and using the resulting product to flavor their dishes for centuries.
The French popularize gelatin
It wasn't until the late 17th century, when French physicist Denis Papin invented the "digester," a sort of proto pressure cooker for cooking bones and meat, that gelatin was mass-produced. The French's curiosity for gelatin expanded into the following decades, even becoming a necessity for soldiers, and a thrifty substitute for meat while making bouillon during the 1800s (Gotthoffer, N.R., p. 2). The father of modern French cuisine, Auguste Escoffier is famous for championing gelatinous stocks and sauces, not only because of their full-bodied taste but because of their role as a digestive aid and nutritional powerhouse. Escoffier was also the first to bring stock cubes to Britain, where the Victorians had already been making intricate and elaborate jelly molds.
From gelatin to Jell-O in America
Around the same time Escoffier was born, gelatin would be exported to the United States, where it was quickly patented by inventor Peter Cooper. Doing little with the patent, he eventually sold it to Pearle B. Wait, who, with the help of his wife May, came up with the idea of adding fruit syrups to the gelatin powder and calling it Jell-O. They eventually sold the Jell-O formula to Orator Francis Woodward, who would turn it on to the masses after declaring it "America's Most Famous Dessert." Today, Jell-O is a household word, and various forms of gelatin have found their way in everything from marshmallows and fruit snacks to ice cream and margarine. Gelatin is also widely used for such disparate purposes as pharmaceutical capsules, cosmetics, photography, and printmaking.
How to use gelatin in your healthy diet
For all its versatile uses, though, gelatin as a nutritional tool has been somewhat swept under the rug over the last century, aside from more traditionally minded researchers like Dr. Pottenger, who made the consumption of it one of just four principles in his "High Protective Diet." (Pottenger’s Cats, available via PPNF's online store) Now, fortunately, as the nutritional powers of gelatin are gradually finding their way into the spotlight, there is a wealth of bone broth recipes and other ingenious ways to use powdered forms of gelatin, from healthy, grassfed animals, of course. No, you don't need to go out and hunt down an animal, collect its bones, and grind them into a powder - but it does help to have a stockpot. Look no further than our recipe for some inspiration. This recipe could can be used to make stock (cook a whole chicken for a short amount of time) or for broth (cook chicken bones for a shorter amount of time.)
- 1 whole pastured, organic, free-range chicken or 2 to 3 pounds of bony chicken parts such as necks, backs, breast bones, wings gizzards from one chicken (optional)
- Feet from the chicken (optional)
- 4 quarts cold filtered water
- 1 tablespoon of organic apple cider vinegar
- Large organic yellow onion, coarsely chopped
- 3-4 organic carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 2 organic celery stalks, coarsely chopped
- 1 bunch organic parsley
If you are using a whole chicken, remove the gizzards from the cavity. Do use chicken feet if you can find them as they are full of gelatin. Place chicken or chicken pieces in a large stainless steel pot with the water, vinegar and all vegetables except parsley. Bring to a boil. Remove the scum that rises to the top. Cover and cook 6 to 8 hours for stock, or 12 to 24 hours for broth. About five minutes before finishing cooking, add the parsley. Remove the chicken from heat and take out the chicken or remove the bone pieces with a slotted spoon. If you are using a whole chicken, let cool and remove the meat from the carcass. Reserve for other recipes. Strain the stock into a large bowl and keep in a glass container in your refrigerator or freezer. Keep the layer of fat that rises to the top of the broth and use when reheating your broth or in other recipes.
- David, A.R. Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. Facts on File: 2003.
- Gotthoffer, N.R. Gelatin in Nutrition and Medicine. Grayslake Gelatin Company: 1945.
- Shanahan, C., M.D. Shanahan, L. Deep Nutrition. Big Box Books: 2008.
- Umami Information Center. http://www.umamiinfo.com/2011/03/dashi-and-umami.php. Accessed June 18, 2015.
- Miss Vickie’s Pressure Cooker Recipes. http://missvickie.com/library/history.html. Accessed June 18, 2015.
- Walker, A. Oldest Glue Discovered. Archeology. http://archive.archaeology.org/online/news/glue.html. Accessed June 18, 2015.
- Pottenger, F.M., Jr., M.D. Pottenger's Cats. Price-Pottenger Nutrition. 2012.