Before Jell-O: What Is Gelatin?

What is gelatin exactly?

When most people think of anything to do with gelatin, they think of Jell-O. Jell-O has long hypnotized people with the classic, colorful sheen of its jiggling cubes (since the 1890s, in fact). It’s commonly found in cafeterias or the dessert portion of buffets, it comes in a variety of colors and flavors, and it may be served with or without whipped cream. Beyond those few factors, there doesn’t seem to be much more of anything interesting about the simple snack. However, its most notable component—gelatin—has more behind it than what Jell-O can display.

On its own, gelatin is completely flavorless. Everything you’ve ever tasted from Jell-O comes from added sugars and flavorings, not the gelatin. The gelatin, however, does give Jell-O its most obvious shivering structure. An interesting fact about this substance is that it is solid at room temperature and is commonly bought in thin sheets. It’s only when it’s added to warm water that it dissolves and starts to turn the water into a semi-solid material. But what exactly is gelatin? From what is it made and how and when was it first created? Its roots may surprise you and possibly give you second thoughts about eating another bite of Jell-O. This is because this substance originates from the body parts of various animals. More specifically, from the hooves of different ungulates (hoofed animals) such as cattle or moose.

What Is Gelatin?

what is gelatin
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels.

On a molecular level, gelatin is made of long chains of amino acids which are the foundation of proteins. At room temperature, these long chains stick together in structures known as triple matrices. These structures are responsible for gelatin remaining solid at room temperature. As the temperature increases, the triple matrices start to fall away from each other and dissociate, giving the gelatin a more liquid-like structure. However, once the triple matrices start to dissociate away from themselves, they don’t just stay separated. Instead, due to hydrogen bound to them, they tend to attach themselves to water, thickening the mixture once the temperature of the water begins to decrease (Baguley & McDonald, 2015).

Zooming out from a molecular level, gelatin’s chemical structure makes up a material known as collagen, a protein derived from connective tissue (Joachim & Schloss, 2016). Collagen is in nearly every living thing we’re familiar with from humans and cows to plants. Collagen is the material that essentially holds our cells together by forming a complex and very resilient network of fibers. It makes up a significant portion of our bodies including our muscles, teeth, blood vessels, and skin.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels.

The gelling ability of collagen can be observed when one cooks any kind of meat in a pan. Once the pan cools, the fat remaining from the animal meat will congeal into a semisolid form, indicating that the collagen proteins have been broken down by heat and have been chemically rearranged. To get gelatin, this process would have to be done on a much larger scale, for example, by boiling entire bones and ligaments of animals. If it wasn’t clear already, no, gelatin is not vegan-friendly.

The Details

Gelatin’s historical side may arguably be just as deep as its scientific side, and it goes much farther back than Jell-O’s creation in the 1890s. Interestingly, gelatin was not always a sweet-tasting snack. Some of the first recorded recipes made with gelatin were savory meals often containing fish or other meat made during the early 15th century (Barksdale, 2014).

It was the 1600s when sweet gelatin desserts began to become popular, especially in Japan where it was manufactured from red seaweed and known as kanten. In contrast, the manufacture of gelatin didn’t begin in Europe until the early 1800s where it was extracted from boiling animal parts in order to make glue (Barksdale, 2014). It was, however, during this time that gelatin in Europe was gradually incorporated into the dessert menu and when today’s well-known Jell-O brand was founded by glue industrialist, Peter Cooper. Since its creation, Jell-O has been one of the most commonly seen forms of gelatin in our diet.

Gelatin has been around for much longer than people tend to realize, and it has been popularized in a variety of different forms throughout history. It has been found in glue, savory meals, as well as the most obvious sweet treats. It can be manufactured by being separated from the collagen content of certain plants like red seaweed or, more commonly, from the boiled bones of animals. Its molecular structure is unique in that it is typically solid at room temperature, liquefies at high temperatures when mixed with water, and becomes a jiggly, semisolid mass once the temperature decreases again. While gelatin might remain known as simply the stuff Jell-O is made of, it might be of interest to know a bit about its backstory.


Baguley, R. & McDonald, C. Appliance of Science: The Firm Chemistry of Medicine. Cnet. Retrieved from’s%20the%20gel%20form%20of,to%20form%20a%20semi%2Dsolid.&targetText=The%20water%20molecules%20float%20away,matrix%20to%20form%20a%20liquid.

Barksdale, N. Jiggle it: The History of Gelatins, Aspics, and Jellies. History. Retrieved from

Joachim, D. & Schloss, A. The Science of Gelatin. FineCooking. Retrieved from

Similar Posts