closeup of strawberry and lemon jello

Is Jello Bad For You? Gelatin Allergy vs. Good/Healthy Debate

[toc]Jello shots are unhealthy, that’s obvious! But what you may not know is that this jiggly concoction in any form – whether it be a dessert pudding, gel cups, or marshmallows – can be associated with some undesirable characteristics, at least for some people.

Some of those things are legit concerns, while others are exaggerations are outright erroneous. Is jello good for you? That’s one camp, while the other thinks it’s bad and should be avoided.

So who’s right? Both sides, in at least some ways.

The preeminent brand of gelatin, Jell-O by Kraft Foods, is not who we’re singling out here. Rather we are talking about the broad category encompassing all gelatin-containing foods and supplements in general, whether they are a brand name product like Knox, a generic jello mix, gummy bears, gelato, or the gelatin capsules which are commonly used for vitamins and other health supplements. All of these things share the same ingredient.

Let’s clear up what’s fact vs. fiction within these 6 common concerns that are raised.

1. Does it cause farts?

boy wearing gas maskLet’s start out with a topic you may be too embarrassed to ask your friend or spouse about, so instead you turn to finding the answer online. Does jello cause gas? That’s debatable.

There’s a PDF guide on the University of Michigan’s Health System’s website titled “Help Hints For Controlling Gas” which lists jello under the category of foods which cause a “normal” amount of gas (1). That category lists foods which are allowed, not those which you “may need to avoid” (moderate amount of gas) or the category “avoid” (major gas producers).

So according to that source, it’s just a “normal” offender – not any better or worse than your average food.

However they list asparagus in the same “normal” category as jello. That makes one question their advice entirely!

Asparagus contains both raffinose and fructans, which are two types of carbohydrates, or sugars, found in plants. Not only are these known to be major contributors of flatulence, but on the Cleveland Clinic’s dedicated page all about gas, they list raffinose as the very first thing on their list of Which foods cause gas? (2) That’s why you will actually see asparagus in many articles which list the top 10 gas-producing foods!

To be clear, jello does not contain raffinose, but when you have two reputable sources giving completely contradictory advice on something like that, it makes you call into question what else they’re telling you, such as their advice about gelatin.

Do a little research online and you will see a number of comments on forums and blogs from people claiming they avoid gelatin because it causes flatulence for them. Is this scientific fact? Nope. We are not aware – nor were we able to locate – any reputable studies which support that claim, at least at this time.

Therefore we personally would veer towards agreeing with the U of M’s stance on this ingredient. Yet at the same time, we also know everyone’s body is different and it is possible that in some people, perhaps gelatin may be more likely to cause farting than some other foods.

Trial and error with your diet would be the only way to find out for sure.

Though when it comes to sugar free jello and pudding, gas as a side effect is common if the artificial sweetener contains sugar alcohols (see #4 below). Maybe that’s the reason some people fart a lot after eating it?

2. Is it vegan?

The original marshmallow was not made with gelatin, but rather the root of the marsh mallow plant (Althaea officinalis)
The original marshmallow was not made with gelatin, but rather the root of the marsh mallow plant (Althaea officinalis)

Is jello vegan friendly? Nope. How about vegetarian? No on that category, too.

But whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or simply grossed out by the idea of eating boiled skin, tendons, and/or ligaments from cows and/or pigs, know that this is what gelatin is made of.

Even though it’s totally gross thinking about those ground up by-products from animals, there’s nothing harmful or dangerous about eating them. Since they’ve been heavily processed with heat and who knows what else, anything living in them has been 100% destroyed, you can rest assured in that!

So sure it tastes good but once you start thinking about the actual substances that are sitting on your tongue, you may be grossed out enough to prefer an alternative.

The good news is there are plenty of alternative ingredients on the market which are not sourced from leftover body parts and therefore are vegan friendly. Agar agar is derived from a type of seaweed and is perhaps the best alternative for making a vegan jello-like recipe. Other options which work for many recipes include carrageenan, locust bean gum, cotton gum, fruit pectin, dextrins, algin and kelp (the latter two are both seaweeds).

While gelatin-free veggie caps (Vcaps) are available for most supplements, some like CoQ10 can be nearly impossible to find, unfortunately.

3. Is it kosher? (and what does that mean?)

passover lambEven many non-Jewish people prefer kosher, because they have the impression it is cleaner than non-kosher. Given that the word has turned into slang for anything that’s genuine and legit, who can blame them?

We by no means claim to be experts on the word (we’re not Jewish) but have learned quite a bit about what it means thanks to our many Jewish friends and having visited Israel.

Whether it be a box of jello or something else, here are the definitions in a nutshell:

“K” or “Kosher” symbols = A rabbi theoretically oversaw the food-manufacturing process to ensure it meets Hebrew dietary laws. That could entail any number of things (no meat from strangled animals, no meat sacrificed to idols, etc.) but most relevant and likely, it means the item does not contain both dairy and meat (it can only contain one or the other, not both).

“P” or “Parve” and “Pareve” symbols = Same concept as above, but this time it’s certifying that it contains no meat or dairy, but it can have fish or eggs.

Is jello certified kosher? We can say for sure that the Jell-O brand is kosher, but many brands are not, as they may have pork in them. On that note, a fish gelatin allergy is possible (more on that below) but we can’t think of instances that form would be used, except possibly for kosher food purposes.

If the whole reason you were buying kosher gelatin was because you assumed it was cleaner, keep in mind what the definition actually means. It means it meets Hebrew dietary laws, it does not mean this ingredient is necessarily “cleaner” or any less disgusting to eat (at least for those who are disgusted by it).

4. Is there a gelatin allergy?

woman with allergiesAs with any food ingredient, allergic reactions are one of the first concerns that comes to mind.

Real bona fide allergies are caused by protein molecules that our immune system falsly identifies as an “enemy” substance. That can cause any number of symptoms depending on the exact allergy, ranging from a simple sneeze, to potentially lethal side effects like asphyxiation.

Theoretically, any form of protein has the potential to cause an allergy. Though contrary to what public perception is, very few people actually have food allergies (3).

What are gelatin allergy symptoms? The good news is that it’s a rare condition, but does exist. Hives, runny nose, low blood pressure, and anaphylaxis (swelling of the throat and face) have all been reported (4).

It turns out that most anaphylactic reactions to vaccines have nothing to do with the active ingredients of the vaccine itself, but rather the protein solution used to deliver them, whose composition may include gelatin or eggs (5). This has led to unfair accusations and scrutiny against the vaccine industry. Their good far outweighs their bad and you don’t need to go back that far in history to validate that, when these diseases previously had crippling and deadly affects on relatively large percentages of the population.

There is a gelatin allergy test but don’t count on it being part of the standard skin prick array. Because it is so rare allergy, a doctor – preferably a board-certified immunologist – has a few ways to try and diagnose it, which may include (6):

  • sIgE blood test results for both bovine (cow) and porcine (pig) gelatins. An allergen from finned fish gelatin is also possible, but that is rarely used for food or vaccines. Perhaps the most common time (and rare at that) it may be used is for specialty kosher items.
  • If the sIgE test comes back negative, the next step may be performing a skin prick test. Your doctor may do this by using 1 teaspoon (5 grams) of a typical sugared gelatin mix (i.e. Jello powder), dissolved with 5 mL of saline water.
  • If the the gelatin allergy blood tests and skin prick are negative, an intradermal test may be done.

As is the case with many allergens, diagnosing is not always easy and straightforward. People could test negative for one method, yet positive on another. This is why it’s ideal for your doctor to be a board-certified specialist who’s highly experienced in this.

5. Are there other side effects?

words "sugar free" written in sugarAre there side effects of jello shots? Most definitely! But those probably have to do with drinking the alcohol, obviously.

When it comes to jello side effects from foods and supplements, the answer you get can vary.

Sugar free jello mix – whether it be a name brand like Jell-O or a generic mix – is almost always made with artificial sweeteners (and not to mention, artificial colors like Blue 1 and Red 40). One of the most common sweeteners used is aspartame, which means it contains phenylalanine.

As you are aware, aspartame is a very controversial artificial sweetener. That’s a whole other discussion to have in and of itself, but perhaps the most prominent research which accelerated the public awareness of the ingredient was the study done by Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center of the European Ramazzini Foundation (CMCRC/ERF). In it, they suggest aspartame increases cancer in rats in some circumstances (7).

Many manufacturers of sugar-free gelatin powders continue to use aspartame, while others have switched to sucralose, which is controversial in its own regard. A laundry list of allegations for sucralose, some of which are not associated with other sweeteners like research which suggests it might adversely affect gut bacteria (8) and being “were found to be mutagenic at elevated concentrations in several testing methods” (9).

Whether its sucralose or sorbitol, artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols have been associated with digestive side effects. For example, if they contain sugar alcohols, burping, bloating, and gas are a common side effect. Sometimes these symptoms can be quite severe, causing abdominal pain (10).

For the regular gelatin-based foods made with normal sugar, no government websites that we looked at listed any possible side effects for them.

We did find that strange since some websites list side effects for gelatin supplements and capsules, which of course use gelatin as their active ingredient

For example on WebMD, they list the following side effects for gelatin supplements:

  • Upset stomach
  • Burping
  • Bloating
  • Some people have allergic reactions to gelatin.

It’s interesting that they list those for dietary supplements, but not for when gelatin is used in foods. Is it possible eating lots of gelatin-containing foods may have the same side effects as the supplements do?

6. Is it healthy for you?

burnt marshmallow on stick
Burnt marshmallows are definitely bad for your health, but for a different reason… acrylamide

This is a loaded question. Obviously anyone – us included – could cherry pick information and use it to suggest yes, jello is good for you, or no, gelatin is bad for your health.

Starting with the positive first, many say that jello is a good diet food or snack because it is so low calorie. No one can argue with that! One of the premade Strawberry Jell-O brand cups is 70 calories, which most people would agree is a pretty innocent dessert or snack and maybe even great for weight loss.

On the flip side of the argument though, some point to it having 16 grams of sugar and 0 grams of fiber, which is tough to classify as being very healthy. In other words, the sugar is absorbed fast and hits your bloodstream, giving you a glycemic spike. After that wears off, you may be back to being hungry. Slower digesting carbs with fibrous content are often recommended as a better diet food for feeling satisfied, longer. Because losing weight is hard if you’re feeling hungry!

Meats are high in methionine, which is an amino acid that can raise homocysteine levels. That’s not a good thing because it’s suspected that higher homocysteine is one of the reasons higher meat intake correlates with a higher likelihood you will develop heart disease, a risk for stroke, bone fractures, and even mental illnesses (11).

Among the amino acids in gelatin, 35% of them are glycine, which has been suggested as helping to “balance out” the higher methionine levels from meat (12). If that theory proves correct, then jello is especially good for you if you eat meat, since it provides you with high amounts of glycine.

Are there any dangerous side effects of gelatin that would make it bad for you? We have seen certain opinion pieces coming from animal rights activists who make some mighty scary accusations about the safety of this ingredient and potential health risks. But guess what? The research does not back up those accusations! And we are vegans telling you this, so if anyone were to be biased, it would be us.

People can disagree on whether gelatin is healthy for you, but no one can say it’s actually unhealthy if they’re using reputable research in their argument. It’s completely safe, assuming you’re eating it within FDA guidelines.

However one can argue it may be bad for your health if you have an allergy to it, if you’re referencing it in combination with some types of artificial sweeteners, or if you have digestive issues which make the ingredient bothersome.