It is hard to resist squeezing a bag of marshmallows as one passes it in the supermarket aisle. Who would have thought that a colorless, brittle, almost tasteless substance called “gelatin” can transform a lump of sugar into an irresistible confection? The truth is that gelatin is a very versatile and important ingredient whose value has long been recognized in many sectors of the food industry. Gelatin is a key component in a whole array of gummy and jelly-style confections. Typically, it is added to yogurts and ice creams to give them a thicker consistency. Pies, mousses and whipped creams are all enhanced with the inclusion of a small bit of gelatin. Because gelatin is also an excellent adhesive, it may even be used to affix sprinkles to pastries. New and innovative uses for gelatin are being created all the time. While this is wonderful news for the general population, it has not always been great news for the kosher consumer.
Gelatin is derived from collagen, a substance found in the skins and bones of animals such as pigs and cows. There is no vegetarian source for collagen, and while one might see “vegetable gelatin” listed on a product label, it would typically be, in actuality, agar agar, a seaweed derivative. In some products, it can be a fair substitute for gelatin.
Since “real” gelatin is derived from animal sources, it has been the focus of debate for nearly 100 years among leading rabbis. The question is: Can gelatin from non-kosher sources be permitted? Although cows that were not ritually slaughtered, and, of course, pigs, are certainly not kosher, some rabbis were lenient in allowing products that had very small amounts of gelatin added. This is because they felt that the gelatin extraction process caused the skins and bones to be sufficiently denatured, to the point that they are no longer considered food.
This is not the mainstream position. It has been rejected by every major kosher certifying agency. Indeed, in order to produce kosher gelatin, equipment that processed gelatin products might need kosherization, depending on the nature of the contact between the equipment and the product.
Another variety of gelatin, which has proven useful in meeting the needs of kosher consumers as well as the Muslim and Hindu communities, is fish gelatin. Kosher fish gelatin is extracted from the skins and bones of kosher fish, those that possess both fins and scales. Since kosher fish skins are plentiful and relatively inexpensive, fish gelatin has been a boon for meeting the growing world-wide demand for kosher. There are currently several OU-certified companies that produce fish gelatin. Of course, there are products that require beef gelatin, and no suitable alternative exists. The kosher consumer will be pleased to note that the OU certifies such a gelatin as well. This special kosher gelatin is made exclusively from the skins of kosher ritually slaughtered cows. Strikingly, this variety of beef-derived gelatin is considered pareve, and may even be combined with dairy ingredients! Although kosher laws are very strict concerning the segregation of milk and meat, the processing of these hides renders them pareve. Therefore, even kosher milk chocolate delicacies can be made with kosher beef gelatin. Orthodontists of the world rejoice: every sticky gummy treat is now available to the kosher consumer.