Most of us know it as Jell-O. Its wiggly appearance adorns our kids’ cafeteria lunch plates and, at one time, it was the star show at community potlucks. It’s the secret ingredient in some brands of yogurts and sour cream and gives gummy bears and sour candies their rubberized tinsel strength.
To those who love all things chewy, gelatin is almost a food group. But for those who shun the idea of eating an extract made from animal bones, it’s a huge headache and an epicurean no-no.
For most of the 375 million vegetarians and vegans in the world, the suspect presence of gelatin in foods often means going without at the desert table, or adeptly navigating through dozens of brand-name products in the grocery aisles. To food manufacturers, that avoidance means lost revenue at the cash register. It also means there is a sector of the population that may never warm up to your brand name.
And that matters. According to the founders of Geltor, a Silicon Valley startup bent on capturing a part of that unique customer base, the gelatin market is worth $3 billion -- largely because there’s never been an ingredient that could adequately reproduce its properties.
Vegetarian ingredients like agar-agar, starches and pectin, Geltor CEO Alexander Lorestani points out, do a fair job at imitating gelatin and have been used for thousands of years by candy makers and canners. But they are far from the real McCoy when it comes to their consistency.
“[Anyone] who has tried a [gummy] bear made with a gelatin substitute knows they are just not the same, they don’t have the same chemical or mechanical properties,” Lorestani told the website Food Navigator-USA.
Lorestani and his partner Nick Ouzounof, a molecular biologist, have gone to work to address this issue, using genetic engineering and fermentation tanks to produce a recipe that can duplicate the rubbery consistency and adaptability of gelatin.
Of course, for some consumers who are turned off by the idea of eating a gummy bear that shares an association with GM technology, Geltor’s answer may not seem that palatable, either.
But for some manufactures, the prospect opens a world of opportunities – some of which are already being tested in laboratory “kitchens” in other parts of the world. According to the research firm Visiongain, the meat alternative industry is now estimated to be worth $4 billion and is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. Companies like Quorn, Beyond Meat, Amy's, Memphis Meats and Supermeat all see the potential to capture a market that can nullify ethical, environmental and religious boundaries.
Geltor may be the first to come up with an alternative for a product that has been around for eons, but it’s likely not going to be the last to realize that finding ways to replace “irreplaceable” animal by-products in food can offer a windfall for the culinary industry, the environment and the inventor’s pocket book.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.