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There are no treats more jiggly and fun to eat than Jello. It comes in dozens of flavors and bright, cheery colors, making it a popular choice for dessert, especially in the scorching summer heat. But is this beloved treat hiding a much darker truth? More important, is Jello vegan? Let’s dig in and find out.
What is jello?
Jello, including Jell-O and all of its off-brand counterparts, is precisely what it claims to be on its packaging: a gelatin dessert (known as “jelly” in the UK). Whether you’re buying it in its powdered form, ready-to-eat cups, or knocking back jello shots, there’s no avoiding the simple fact that jello gets its bouncy, jiggly consistency from gelatin.
This means that jello pudding is, of course, not vegan. But before we explore plant-based alternatives, let’s explore how jello is made and understand the process that turns it from a dry powder to gelatinous dessert.
How is jello made?
To understand how jello is made, we need to find out how its main ingredient, gelatin, is created.
Gelatin is most commonly derived from the skin, bones, and connective tissues of cows, pigs, and sometimes fish. These inedible body parts, usually shipped from nearby slaughterhouses, are inspected and sorted through to remove any spoiled pieces (as if there are any good parts of someone else’s mutilated body).
What remains after inspection is chopped up into small pieces and power washed, soaked in hot water to remove excess fat, and roasted in an industrial dryer. The pieces are then soaked for several days in a highly acidic solution that consists of up to 4 percent hydrochloric acid — the same type of acid that’s in your stomach — in order to kill dangerous bacteria (you’d think maybe that would be a sign that no one should be eating this stuff, right?). This process also releases collagen, the protein that creates gelatin.
After soaking in acid, the pieces are moved to extractors, where they are boiled in water. This crucial step is what causes gelatin to form in the water.
At this point, the liquid gelatin is extracted, then sterilized with heat. A filter removes any leftover pieces of tissue or bone, and the liquid is evaporated, leaving behind solid, dried gelatin. It’s pressed into large sheets, then ground into powder.
Add some artificial colors and flavors, sweeteners, acids, and preservatives, and there you have it: jello, in powder form. To say this stuff is gross would be an understatement.
When this powder is mixed with boiling water, the collagen is broken down. Cooling the mixture allows the collagen to recombine, joining with the water molecules to create the icky, bones-and-tissue-based dessert known as jello.
What else is gelatin in?
Gelatin’s presence in food is often not as obvious as it is in jello.
You probably know that it plays a starring role in most gummy candies, but this animal-based ingredient can be found lurking in unexpected places. Kellogg’s Frosted Shredded Mini-Wheats cereal, marshmallows, frosted Pop-Tarts, and Planter’s Dry Roasted Peanuts are just a few of the foods that you might not have guessed contain gelatin. It’s also often used as a refining agent for many wines and beers.
This additive appears in non-food sources as well, such as certain types of glue, some cosmetics and beauty care products, and many pills and vitamin supplements, which is why it’s important to always double check ingredients labels, even on non-food items.
Vegan gelatin alternatives
Gelatin’s primary function is as a thickening agent, but animals shouldn’t have to suffer and die to make gummy bears chewy or jello jiggly. Thankfully, there are vegan gelatin substitutes that don’t require bones, skin, or death. Let’s take a look at some of the more popular alternatives, how they can be used in vegan jello recipes, and their nutritional value.
What is agar agar and is it good for you?
Of all the alternatives, this one is probably the most fun to pronounce. Agar agar, or simply agar, is a thick, translucent, jelly-like substance derived from a type of red algae called Gracilaria. It’s known by scientists primarily as a medium for growing cultures, but to plant-based practitioners all around the world, it’s the most popular alternative to gelatin.
Like tofu and soy milk, agar was a staple for hundreds of years in east Asian cultures before it became popular among vegetarians in the west. Since its accidental discovery in 17th century Japan, it’s been commonly used as a thickener for jellied candies, desserts, and some savory dishes. Because of its popularity in Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese and other Asian cultures, it’s readily available at most Asian supermarkets. You can also find it in some health food stores and online.
Although agar is derived from algae, it won’t make your vegan jello taste like the ocean. It’s completely tasteless, making it the ideal substitute for gelatin in most recipes. To substitute gelatin with agar in a non-vegan recipe, the ratio of powdered agar to gelatin is 1:1. If you’re using agar flakes or bars, you’ll need one tablespoon or half a bar per cup of water, respectively.
If you’re ready to make your own vegan jello with agar, you can try out this super simple recipe. When you’re feeling slightly more adventurous, you have to try these beautiful Mango Raspberry Jello Cups from Tatyana’s Everyday Food, which are sure to impress friends and family at your next potluck.
Agar has zero calories, sugar, fat, and carbs. It’s also about 80 percent fiber, so it works as a mild laxative (something to consider before indulging in a whole bowl of vegan jello!). While it is relatively harmless, consuming large quantities of it with insufficient water or liquid can actually cause intestinal blockage, so make sure to stay well-hydrated when consuming this seaweed jelly.
For a more detailed look at the history and uses of agar, check out this informational video:
Carrageenan: separating truth from fiction
Agar is certainly the most popular alternative to gelatin, but a close second is carrageenan, also known as Irish moss. Like agar, carrageenan is also derived from seaweed, and it’s a popular thickener in a lot of vegan dairy alternatives, including dairy-free cheeses, yogurts, milks, and coffee creamers. It’s also a stabilizer, preventing sediment from settling in liquids, so you can thank this additive for keeping your almond or soy milk smooth, creamy and grit-free.
While agar sets slightly more firmly than gelatin, carrageenan is a bit softer, so you can experiment with both and decide which you prefer. Try using it to make jello or your very own homemade vegan cheese, like this yummy smoked cheddar from Julie and Kittee.
If you’re at all familiar with carrageenan, you may have heard some worrying information about the safety of this plant-based thickener. Controversy has surrounded carrageenan for decades, and there’s a lot of conflicting info out there — one source may say that carrageenan may damage your GI tract, while another may say that it’s completely harmless. Let’s separate fact from fiction so you can decide for yourself whether or not you want to consume carrageenan.
Most of the warnings about carrageenan are based on one particular study that was done by Joanne Tobacman in 2001. In this study, Tobacman observed the effects of carrageenan on animals’ intestinal tracts. What she discovered was that feeding diluted carrageenan to rats and guinea pigs caused a number of health problems, including ulcers in the colon and rectum and a sharp increase in tumors.
While the results of this study seem to be damning evidence that carrageenan is unsafe for consumption, the study itself is incredibly flawed. Its most glaring error is that it’s based on degraded carrageenan, which, confusingly, is not carrageenan at all, but a completely different substance. Degraded carrageenan is another term for poligeenan, a substance that is derived from seaweed but is far more processed than carrageenan.
Unlike carrageenan, poligeenan is treated with very strong acids and is not used in food production because it’s unsafe for consumption, which would explain the results of Tobacman’s flawed study. Of course animals would develop health problems from eating something that isn’t meant to be eaten!
Another major red flag in this study is that its results have proven to be unreplicable. In order for a scientific study to be valid, its results must be able to be reliably replicated over and over again, which hasn’t been the case for Tobacman’s now infamous study.
Most of the fearmongering surrounding carrageenan is simply based on bad science, and not much else. Carrageenan is a natural, minimally processed substance with no proven negative effects on human health.
In fact, it may actually be good for you, so feel free to use it to thicken soups, nuts cheeses, dairy-free ice cream, and whatever else your little vegan heart desires…if you want to, of course. No one is telling you what you can or can’t do here!
Rounding out the list of popular vegan gelatin alternatives is pectin. Pectin is a naturally occurring substance found in fruit, and it’s a popular additive in jellies, jams, marmalades, sorbets, and fruity candies. It’s most commonly derived from the skins of citrus fruits or apples, rather than pigs, and it’s a bit softer than agar and carrageenan.
Our favorite vegan-friendly jellos
While we have spent quite a bit of time covering vegan gelatin alternatives, I haven’t forgotten what initially brought you here: jello. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the most popular vegan jello brands out there.
Kicking off the list is Simply Delish Jel Dessert. Available in orange, peach, strawberry, raspberry, and the original unflavored variety, Simply Delish is a gelatin-free, sugar-free alternative to traditional jello pudding. Vegan heaven! While the jel’s flavor has earned it rave reviews, some consumers criticize it for being pricey; that shouldn’t be a problem, however, as long as you’re not eating tons of jello every day!
Next up is Jeannie’s Prebiotic Jelly Dessert. In addition to being delicious, this dessert is actually good for your gut, giving you all the more reason to try it out! It comes in a handful of different flavors, including blueberry and apple, and customers give it a 4.5 star rating on Amazon as this vegan jello recipe comes amazingly close to the consistency of the animal-based product.
If you’re looking for a ready-made option, you may want to try out Cool Cups. These vegan jello cups, available at Whole Foods, come in a 4-pack of either orange, black cherry, peach mango, or strawberry jel. The consistency is a bit softer than gelatin-based jello, but it’s still a refreshing, fruity, and convenient treat if you don’t have time to make jello from scratch.
While these vegan jello brands are the most highly rated and readily available, there are a few other plant-based jellos out there, including Bakol and Lieber’s, so if you try a particular brand and don’t like it, there’s always something else to try!
Is Jello Vegan? Answered!
Traditional jello is made with gelatin, which is always animal-based and never, ever vegan.
Thankfully, plant-based practitioners who crave a cruelty-free version of this wiggly treat have several options available. Carrageenan, agar, pectin, and other gelatin alternatives allow vegans to enjoy animal-free versions of their favorite gelatin-based desserts and candies from their childhood.
Do you have a favorite vegan gelatin substitute? Let us know in the comments!