Gelatin is a Traditional Food and Medicine
It may come as a surprise, but gelatin (made popular by the Jell-O brand) is one of oldest medicines and foods known to man. As a medicine, ancient healers and less modern doctors often recommended that their patients supplement with gelatin in order to help with digestion problems, including ulcers, stomach acid imbalance, and indigestion. As a food, gelatin is a natural ingredient in the most primitive and universal meal: soup (or stew).
Gelatin is a Natural Food, Also Known as Collagen
The word “gelatin” comes from the gel-like consistency this protein-complex forms when it cools. Nearly everyone has seen the amazing property of gelatin to gel in dishes like the iconic Jell-O salad. You might not have realized it, but the same gelatin activity seen in gelatin molds is also responsible for the gel-like consistency that forms when soups, stews, or gravy’s cool down a bit. Gelatin is also one of the ingredients that helps thicken these popular comfort foods.
While it might seem a little strange, gelatin is simply a mixture of different proteins that are hydrophilic. In other words, gelatin attracts water to itself and holds it in a protein structure. The protein structure is actually the same stuff that much of the human body is made out of, collagen. Collagen contains 19 out of 20 amino acids and is especially high in alanine, arginine, glutamic acid, hydroxyproline, proline, and especially glycine.
Gelatin was traditionally extracted from animals during the process of making broth or stocks for soup. All chefs know (along with traditional peoples) that a good stock is the foundation for delicious soups and sauces. The creation of broth developed out of long-held values and the necessity of using every part of the animals being eaten. In this effort, bones, skin, and cartilage were boiled to extract all the nutrients and flavors they contained, and this is still how a good broth is made. Unfortunately, making broth can be a time consuming and messy process, requiring hours of simmering, so few people in modern society (apart from gourmet chefs) spend the time extracting all those health promoting nutrients. Sadly, our modern eating and cooking habits are causing us to miss out on the wonderful benefits gelatin can offer for our digestion.
How Gelatin Helps with Digestion Problems
Gelatin helps promote digestion in two ways: by stimulating stomach acid production and by moving stomach acid away from the stomach walls towards the food being digested. Contrary to popular belief, digestion problems are often connected to too little stomach acid production, not too much. In fact, ulcers aren’t caused by stomach acid; it’s just that acid causes pain in those areas because the proper stomach protection is lacking. Gelatin increases stomach acid production thanks to its high glycine content, and thus promotes better digestion (less gas and bloating). The amino acid glycine is particularly good at stimulating the release of stomach acid.
In addition to containing high amounts of glycine, gelatin is also a hydrophilic colloid. As mentioned earlier, gelatin loves water and absorbs it like sponge. Thankfully, gelatin also absorbs stomach acid. The awesome thing about gelatin compared to stomach acid neutralizers like calcium carbonate is that it doesn’t neutralize the body’s ability to digest food. Instead, because it’s hydrophilic, gelatin sucks stomach acid towards the food that’s being digested, while simultaneously moving the acid away from the walls of the stomach where it can cause irritation in an unhealthy stomach.
The Take Away: Traditional methods of cooking that emphasize whole foods and slow cooking methods tend to provide more of the nutrients the body needs for health. Today most of us are missing out on the benefits provided by a real, homemade stock made from the whole carcass of an animal. Our family is trying to get back to traditional cooking methods as often as possible. You too might want to experiment with making your own stock using a whole chicken or the marrow bones from a cow (which can be obtained from your local butcher). A more convenient (though less flavorful and nutritious method) way to obtain gelatin is through simple supplementation. Try adding pure gelatin powder to your simple soup or stew recipes. If you have digestion problems you can even take gelatin with a small glass of water during a meal, or try adding it to smoothies.
Recommended Product: Great Lakes Gelatin
Recommended Reading: Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon
References: Wald, A and Adibi, SA, “Stimulation of gastric acid secretion by glycine and related oligopeptides in humans,” American Journal of Physiology, 1982, 5, 242, G86-G88; Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, Pg. 61; Hydrophilic Colloid Diet, by Dr. F.M. Pottenger Jr.