Sunday , 26 May 2019
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Humane alternatives to gelatine

Maneka Gandhi

New things are happening on the food front that are exciting and potentially earth-saving. From clean meat, which is real meat made by multiplying cells instead of using animals – which will remove the millions of animals that are grown and tortured for food – to milk that is made in the same way. One company has started making real yolks without chickens. And now it is gelatine’s turn.

For the last five years, I have been trying to get the Government to pass law, asking for all medicine capsules to be vegetarian. Millions of people, like me, can’t swallow medicines because the capsule is made of ground animal bone coming from cows and pigs. The Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) made a number of committees. Presentations were made, issues discussed and finally, he agreed that capsules should be vegetarian. Then the gelatine industry started feeding the press, and their lobbyists got into the act, stating it would make them expensive, vegetarian alternatives were not available – all not true. Then the political order came that this was not to be done as it would have ‘political repercussions close to the elections’ – meaning that some politician’s friend was in the gelatine industry. So, we are back to where we started after five years, and I am really sad.

Gelatine is a flavourless, colourless, gelling and thickening agent made by throwing animal skin, bones and connective tissues into an acid or alkaline bath and dissolving them. The animal parts used commercially are pigskin, cowhide, cattle bones and fish skin.

Gelatine dissolves in hot water and gels when it cools and creates a texture that is used in confectionery such as sweets, marshmallows, desserts, cakes and jellies. It is used to simulate the ‘mouthfeel of fat’ in low fat foods and to create volume in foods ranging from ice cream, all Chinese food, soups, cream cheese, gummy bears, wine, beer, apple juice and vinegar , pill capsules, frosted cereals, yogurts, dips and even some frozen vegetables. It’s what gives them their chewy, rubbery strength.

The food and beverage industry is the biggest market for gelatine, followed by nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, photography, and cosmetics such as face creams, shampoos, hair sprays, soaps and nail polishes.

There are vegan alternatives to gelatine: agar-agar, pectin, starches, gums. But companies using gelatine say that they do not have the same chemical and mechanical properties. They are also slightly more expensive.

But, now a company, Gelzen has been founded in 2015 to produce animal-free gelatine for use in food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products, in a new way. Gelzen co-founders are molecular biologist Nick Ouzounov, PhD, and Alex Lorestani, PhD, who studied medicine and bacterial pathogenesis. While studying at Princeton they asked themselves the question: why has the consumer goods industry still not benefited from synthetic biology to the extent that medicine has? We no longer have to slaughter a pig and take its pancreas to get insulin, so why should we do it for gelatine and collagen?

Geltor (previously known as Gelzen) is a California-based company that seeks to disrupt the gelatine market by providing the same gelatine – except that it is animal free. It creates designer vegan collagen for the best skin care products, and in 2018 it won the CEW Beauty Innovation Award. CEW or Cosmetic Executive Women comprises of 8,600 plus beauty industry professionals who know the best cosmetics in the market.

The San Francisco-based company seeks to supply the overwhelming demand for gelatine. By taking the machinery that builds collagen in animals and moving it into microbes, Gelzen can make a customisable, cost-competitive, safe, animal-free and environment-friendly product. Gelzen explains the simple logic behind the cruelty-free gelatine on its website: “Scavenging essential products from animals presents urgent economic problems, environmental problems, public health problems, and, for many, moral problems.” Gelzen has been heavily invested in by food and tech investors.

Most people don’t know they are munching on a sweet containing fish or pigskin. But, if they did, I am sure they would not buy the product – even if they are meat eaters. It’s not just about religious consequences but also about animal diseases. The vegetarian/vegan market is growing and there is a significant demand for a vegan alternative that can precisely replicate the unique qualities of gelatine. The current market for gelatine has been estimated at three billion dollars (the current price is about eight dollars per kg), so there is great potential for a cost-effective alternative. People are already paying four to five times this amount for gelatine substitutes.

What Geltor has done is take microbes and genetically engineer them to produce collagen from which gelatine is derived via a fermentation process, without using or harming animals. Gelzen’s scientists program bacteria and yeast with the same genetic information as in animal tissue that produces gelatine. They then use these biological strains to ferment gelatine.

According to Lorestani: “We start with a suite of microbes that naturally produce proteins but we give them a set of instructions for making collagen [from which gelatine derives] in the form of genes. We are basically programming them to build collagen for us. The process can also be customised so we can make gelatin with a specific stiffness or beer clarifying agents with a particular property.”

Geltor’s animal-free collagen (N-Collage™) was launched in April 2018. Their aim is to have significant commercial quantities available by 2020, but they have already started selling.

The use of animals as edible proteins is now fast becoming archaic. Once all these companies, with alternative production systems, enter the market, people will wonder twenty years from now why they ever ate meat and endured the diseases caused. Why they let millions of acres of land be devastated for animal grazing, why they let 70 per cent of the water be used for animals and why they allowed greenhouse gases to be emitted by animals.

For the 400 million vegetarians and vegans in the world, the suspect presence of gelatine in foods often means going without pudding or having to read an endless number of labels. It also means that many companies lose customers. Now, with Gelzen in the market producing safe and sustainable gelatine devoid of animal cruelty, the gelatine companies in India have no excuse at all.