Can Gelatin Be Vegetarian?

In this short article, we will provide an answer to the question, “can gelatin be vegetarian?” by providing an in-depth analysis of substitutes of gelatin for vegetarians, uses of gelatin, and the nutritional value of gelatin.

Can gelatin be vegetarian?

Studies suggest an increase of about 30% in global demand for food and non-food grade gelatin, as was expected, it rose from 348.9 kilo tons in 2011 to 450.7 kilo tons in 2018, where 40% of the gelatin output in 2011 was derived from pig skin. In the past, gelatin was extracted from the skin and cartilage of pigs (46%) output, bovine hides (29.4%), bones (23.1%), and other sources (1.5%) (1).

Gelatin is non-vegetarian in nature, as it is mainly produced from animal products. Majorly pig’s skin, leather, cattle bones, and horns are used to derive gelatin. Commercially byproducts of meat and leather are also used for the production of gelatin.

There are vegetarian options available in markets such as agar agar, carrageenan, vegetable gums, and pectin. Such products are indicated with a green square and green dot in the center and are labeled as vegetarian gelatin. These products are certainly gelatin but not gelatin, so known as gelatin-like products (2).

Gelatin itself is mostly protein. It is made from heating the tissues found in humans and animals. The connective tissues are present in an ample amount in living organisms. Collagen is the protein present abundantly in the skeletal system i.e. bones, tendons, ligaments, etc. as well as the skin. Chemically, gelatin is made up of 18 varieties of complex amino acids, ca. 57% of glycine, proline and hydroxyproline are the major compounds, while the remaining ca. 43% are other distinguished amino acids families such as glutamic acid, alanine, arginine and aspartic acid (2).

To make gelatin, we heat the collagen abundant bones, skin, tendons in water. The chemical applied, usually HCl or NaOH during pre-treatment on collagen breaks the non-covalent bonds to disorganize the protein structure, causing sufficient swelling and solubilisation (2). On cooling, the mixture extracted is flavorless and colorless. This mixture gains a jelly-like consistency and is labeled as gelatin. The gelatin formed on cooling has many health benefits.

Substitutes of gelatin for vegetarians

As vegetarians stick to a diet completely non-dependent on the livestock, they need some substitutes for replacing gelatin-containing products. Some substitutes are mentioned below;

Agar-agar is one of the substances which can easily replace gelatin. It is derived from algae making it possible for both vegetarians and vegans to consume. Agar-agar is readily used in custards, jellies, and puddings. It is mostly available in the form of a powder but works almost similar to gelatin in terms of food. Its main structure is chemically characterized by repetitive units of D-galactose and 3-6,anhydro-L-galactose, with few variations, and a low content of sulfate esters. The extraordinary gelling power of agar is based exclusively in the hydrogen bonds formed among its linear galactan chains that provide an excellent reversibility, with gelling and melting temperatures that differ normally by about 45 °C (3).

 Pectin is another substitute for gelatin. Unlike, agar-agar it is obtained from the fruits hence rendering it fit for consumption for vegetarians. Pectins belong to the group of hetero-polysaccharides and are present in all plant primary cell walls. Depending on the molecular composition there are different types of pectin characterizing themselves particularly by different gelling mechanisms (3).  Pectin can easily be made for use by heating it with sugars as well as acids, this way it maintains a gel-like consistency and is fit for use. It is mostly present in jams and jellies and is obtained from fruits like apples and oranges. Pectin, like agar-agar, also comes in the form of a powder. It, however, is less firm in comparison to gelatin. 

Carrageenan: It is derived from seaweed, often used in jellies, puddings, mousses, soups, and ice cream. Gels are produced by heating and cooling solutions of these polysaccharides to give soft, elastic gels with iota carrageenan and firm, brittle gels with kappa carrageenan and furcellaran. Lambda carrageenan gives viscous solutions (3). Carrageenan is flavorless and sets things more softly than actual gelatin, it melts in the mouth. To use carrageen in its dried form, they are rinsed well then soaked in water for 12 hours until they swell, and then boil it thoroughly.

Uses and benefits of gelatin

  • Gelatin is a rich source of amino acids required by the human body and hence has a wide variety of uses. Some of them are

·         Gelatin has essential amino acid named glutamic acid in abundance which is known to improve the activity of the digestive system. Several amino acids including glutamine are proposed to have some functionality in the gut. Factors such as glycomacropeptides have been identified which exhibit prebiotic and/or probiotic activity and may also stimulate cholecystokinin (CCK) release from intestinal cells and inhibition of toxin binding (4).

·         It is also known for aiding in joint pain and other inflammatory disorders as it contains collagen protein. Gelatin may have a preventive and regenerative effect on the skeleton and locomotor system (3).

·         Gelatin is used in the food industry on a large scale. It is present in jelly, stock, stews, marshmallows, and other items with nearly the same composition (2).

·         Gelatin is also said to improve the texture of hair and nails in humans as the proteins present in it provide the essential nourishment required for them to grow (3).

·         According to research, gelatin also aided people to maintain a healthy sleep cycle and improved the quality of sleep too. Tryptophan (Trp) is the precursor of the sleep regulating neurotransmitter serotonin and hormone melatonin (5) and can be found in large quantities in the gelatin extracted from fish skin (6).

·         Due to its high protein content and low fat, gelatin may also play a role in losing weight. Gelatin is fat- and cholesterol-free with high-protein and low energy (2).

·         It also can play a vital role in the strengthening of tissue and bones (2).

Gelatin contains collagen which is used in the cosmetics industry to manufacture products needed for boosting and improving the elasticity of the skin. It plays a vital role in improving the appearance of the skin.

The nutritional profile of gelatin

Gelatin is mostly proteinaceous in nature but it also contains several other useful substances in trace amounts. Following is a brief outlook on the nutritious profile of  85 g serving of gelatin dessert. The nutritional profile of gelatin depends on the composition and the additives, such as sweeteners, stabilizers and flavorings.

·         Carbohydrates       76.92 g

·         Calories                324 kcal

·         Protein                   6.63 g

·         Calcium                 3 mg

·         Sodium, Na           396 mg

·         Magnesium           2 mg

·         Phosphorus          120 mg

·         Amino acids          6.646


In this short article, we provided an answer to the question, “can gelatin be vegetarian?”, while providing an in-depth analysis of the uses and benefits of gelatin, substitutes of gelatin for vegetarians to use, and the nutritional value of a serving of gelatin. Gelatin is non-vegetarian in nature but alternates are available for vegetarians.

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Alipal, J., et al. A review of gelatin: Properties, sources, process, applications, and commercialisation. Mat Today Proceed, 2021, 42, 240-250.


Phillips, Glyn O., and Peter A. Williams, eds. Handbook of hydrocolloids. Elsevier, 2009.


Jongjareonrak, Akkasit, et al. Chemical compositions and characterisation of skin gelatin from farmed giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas). LWT-Food Sci Technol, 2010, 43, 161-165.