If you spend much time talking to people who eat Paleo, you’ll probably hear about gelatin. Gelatin checks all the boxes for an important food from a Paleo perspective:
- Relatively abundant in our ancestral diet, but relatively scarce in the modern diet.
- Significant health benefits that make that scarcity a serious problem.
Here’s an explanation of what gelatin and collagen are, the difference between them, and why they’re important, plus simple ways to get more of them in your own diet.
Gelatin and Collagen: Missing Pieces in the Modern Diet
The story of gelatin actually starts with a protein called collagen. Collagen is the most important protein in connective tissue, skin, and bones; you actually have more collagen in your body than any other type of protein. Degradation or lack of collagen can cause problems from skin wrinkles to osteoporosis.
In food, collagen is found mostly in the “odd bits” and tougher cuts of beef that contain a lot of connective tissue. You might recognize these as the parts of the animals that our ancestors ate, but we typically throw away today.
Gelatin comes into this because people rarely eat skin and tendons raw; they cook them. And cooking the collagen transforms it into gelatin. Gelatin is the cooked form of collagen – it’s the way we can eat the beneficial amino acids in the collagen without having to sit down to a lovely plate of raw tendons for dinner.
So far, so simple, but there’s one more distinction to make. Cooking collagen-rich foods extracts gelatin, but if more intensive processing can also create a slightly different product called collagen hydrolysate.
Collagen Hydrolysate vs. Gelatin
Collagen hydrolysate (which is the same thing as hydrolyzed collagen) is not exactly the same thing as gelatin. In the hydrolyzed form, the collagen is processed more intensively, which actually breaks up the proteins into smaller pieces. They both have the same amino acids, but different chemical properties.
|Source||Bones, skin, and scales of animals.|
|Amino acid profile||Exactly the same; collagen just has the proteins in smaller pieces.|
|Dissolves in cold water?||No; true gelatin dissolves only in hot water.||Yes|
|Causes liquids to gel?||Yes||No|
The benefits of collagen are mostly from the amino acids, and you break down both gelatin and hydrolyzed collagen into the same amino acids in your digestive system anyway, so in terms of health benefits, hydrolyzed collagen and gelatin should be roughly equivalent. But on the other hand, some people with may find the hydrosylate easier to digest, and they do have culinary differences in terms of how you’ll use them.
Health Benefits of Collagen and Gelatin
Collagen is important for skin and bone health – supplements are sold for everything from wrinkles to osteoporosis. As well as supplying the important amino acids for collagen stores in your body, gelatin and hydrolyzed collagen also have gut-healing benefits that might be even more important from a health perspective. Because most of the health benefits of collagen/gelatin come from the amino acids, it’s likely that for most people, the benefits will be the same whether you’re getting hydrolyzed collagen or gelatin.
- This review goes over some of the evidence that supplemental collagen may help improve skin elasticity and reduce roughness and skin aging.
- There’s some evidence that hydrolyzed collagen supplements improve arthritis pain and generally benefit bone and joint health.
- Gelatin may help normalize gut hormones in people with obesity.
- Gelatin and collagen are both also great for your gut – they help heal intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”) and restore the normal mucosal layer in the gut.
Gelatin specifically also has some great culinary uses – don’t discount the benefits of making healthy food tastier. For one thing, gelatin makes your pan sauces awesome. The food science nerds at Serious Eats have taken this one on: the reason why traditional stock makes a better pan sauce than broth in a can is that the traditional version has more gelatin. Sure, you could doctor up your store-bought broth with extra gelatin powder to re-create the effect, but why would you do that when you could just use the real thing?
How to Get More Gelatin and Collagen in Your Life
Nobody eats raw collagen – theoretically you could, but you’d have to sit around gnawing on raw animal tendons and bones. But you can add more gelatin and hydrolyzed collagen to your diet quite easily.
For the Traditionalists: Gelatin from Animal Foods
You can’t get hydrolyzed collagen from home cooking unless your kitchen contains an entire chemistry lab. But considering that they’re probably equivalent for most people, getting more gelatin is likely to give you the same results. Here’s how to get it:
- Bone broth is the original gelatin source. If it turns into chicken or beef Jell-O when you stick it in the fridge, then you know it’s full of gelatin (here are some tips for making that happen). Drink it plain or use it in soups.
- Roasts with lots of connective tissue (think chuck roast and similar cuts) will also produce meat and broth full of gelatin if you cook them long and slow, thanks to the breakdown of collagen in the meat.
Non-Traditional but Tasty
If you’re not insistent about getting your gelatin directly from the source, hydrolyzed collagen and gelatin powder are available at almost all grocery stores (typically in the baking aisle, next to the Jell-O or with the pie filling). Purified protein-in-a-can won’t have any of the other good stuff you get from meat and broth, but it’s certainly convenient and you can do all kinds of things with it…
- Gelatin: make your own gummy candies, puddings, or gelatin desserts.
- Gelatin: add it to sauces and soups to thicken them.
- Collagen: stir it into your coffee or tea, or even just a glass of water. Theoretically, you can do this with gelatin too, but most people find the texture of coffee + gelatin to be extremely off-putting.
- Either: add to smoothies. Some people like the gelatin texture in smoothies; other people would rather just use collagen.
Summing it Up
There’s an old piece of advice to “eat what ails you” – whatever part of your body is giving you trouble, eat that part of the animal and you’ll feel better. It doesn’t work in every case, and it's not a terribly sound scientific principle, but in the case of gelatin and collagen, it pretty much holds true: eating gelatin derived from the skin and bones of animals can help your own skin and bone health.
Gelatin and collagen also have impressive gut-healing benefits, and they’re very easy to get into your diet. Get more gelatin from bone broth or slow-cooked roasts, or just take a shortcut and buy them in pure form to add to whatever you like. It's not difficult at all, and it's one more way to get a little extra Paleo nutrition in.
If you’re looking to geek out more about collagen, here’s a good guide that gets into the nitty gritty.