The Trials of Creating Vegan, Kosher, Halal, Meat-Free Gelatin

The Trials of Creating Vegan, Kosher, Halal, Meat-Free Gelatin

When I was maybe 8 or 9, my dad ordered mussels at a restaurant. This was his first time ordering any sort of bivalve, and when the creatures arrived, glistening in their alabaster shells, he grimaced.

My family’s relationship to meat has always been complicated. My parents were raised as Hindus in India. They were not particularly devout but steeped in the particulars. My maternal grandmother eschewed onions and garlic along with eggs and animal flesh. My mother and her four siblings added in the eggs, onion, and garlic, but meat remained verboten. By the time my sister and I came of age in western New York in the ’80s and ’90s, we rarely ate meat at home, but we occasionally indulged in kung pao chicken or Big Macs after our weekly Hindi classes. And every summer, at my father’s annual work picnic, we devoured hot dogs slathered in ketchup and relish.

As first-generation meat eaters, we practiced willful ignorance. The less meat resembled animals, the better. Chickens had to be boneless and skinless, beef crumbled and bloodless, and seafood eyeless and shell-less. By this logic, there may have been no meat product more perfect than gelatin. Nothing in a wobbling bowl of Jell-O resembles an ear, eye, or anything vaguely suggestive of life, yet gelatin comes from the collagen proteins made by boiling down the hooves, hides, and bones of pigs, cows, and fish. It was a starter kit for converted carnivores.

“Gelatin is far removed from people’s conception of what is food,” concurs Sam Bompas, whose London-based art studio has created several enormous, gelatin-based installations. “It’s such a weird, alien, non-food product.”

Gelatin’s aura of, well, nothing has enabled it to slip into an array of foods, including yogurt, breath mints, gummy candies, and, as I learned on a recent Easter shopping trip, Peeps. While other gelling and thickening agents exist — corn starch, modified corn starch, tapioca starch, modified tapioca starch, agar agar, xantham gum, gum arabic, guar gum, carrageenan — many of those substitutes fall apart at high temperatures and crumble when they need to jiggle. “We’ve tried every gelatin alternative,” says Bompas, who once set a 19th-century British steamship in 55,000 liters of lime-green jelly. “Fruit jelly agents like pectin, agar agar — none of them has that magic, lustrous mouthfeel of gelatin. None of them has that comedy wobble.”

The global market for gelatin is projected to be worth more than $4 billion by 2024.

Thanks to the ubiquity of gelatin and an ever-expanding global population, the worldwide market for it has been forecast to grow by 58 percent, from 412.7 kilo tons in 2015 to 651.7 kilo tons in 2024. By then, gelatin will be a more than $4 billion industry, according to one analysis. The Asian Pacific market is growing fastest, thanks to high demand for gelatin-containing foods, cosmetics, and supplements.

And yet, a small movement is now underway, one in which willful ignorance (in regard to food, at least) is falling out of favor. In August 2016, Belgian journalist and filmmaker Alina Kneepkens created a 90-second clip of a woman eating a multicolored gumdrop. The video starts with the gumdrop and the woman’s lips painted and glossed, and then the candy begins its journey back in time, from the candy factory to rows of bloody pigs hung by their hooves inside a slaughterhouse to the fuzzy pig from whence it originated. The gruesome affair culminates with a mournful oink.

Kneepkens says that the video, which was originally produced for Belgian TV, gained momentum when an Israeli animal-rights nonprofit called Glass Walls uploaded it to Facebook, where it has garnered more than 13 million views since August 2016. Other media outlets began picking up the clip, and it soon went viral. While some viewers were unmoved, others vowed to never eat gelatin candy again. These newly converted gummy teetotalers joined strict vegetarians, vegans, and millions of kosher and halal eaters in the still-untapped consumer market for foods made with gelatin that doesn’t come from the slaughterhouse. “Do you know,” says Muhammad Chaudry, president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, “how many big companies are trying to mess around with starch to create a molecule like gelatin?”

Not all those companies are big, however. And not all are aiming to create a molecule “like gelatin.” Instead, one Bay Area startup, Geltor, is attempting to make something that is gelatin, right down to the wobble. Only their gelatin of the future originates not in animals, but in a petri dish. “We have essentially moved the molecular program for making collagen [the precursor to gelatin] from a cow into a microbe,” says Alexander Lorestani, Geltor’s co-founder and CEO.

The idea that meat, eggs, milk, and byproducts like gelatin don’t have to originate in animals has been gaining traction in recent years. Scientists at Clara Foods are working to fabricate eggs without birds, while those at Perfect Day hope to convince 4-year-olds (and their moms) that it’s possible to take the moo out of milk. The most prominent work in this arena comes from the lab of Mark Post, a researcher at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who grabbed headlines in 2013 by eating the world’s first lab-grown hamburger.

“We have essentially moved the molecular program for making collagen [the precursor to gelatin] from a cow into a microbe,” Lorestani says.

But Lorestani thinks lab-grown gelatin could have an edge in this crowded market. “When you think about food products,” he says, “they have dimensions of flavor, dimensions of color, dimensions of mouthfeel, dimensions of how it sizzles.” Gelatin has none of those things. The only quality that matters is its stiffness. Gelatin, says Lorestani, “is an ingredient, not a slab of meat.”

Gelatin may date back 40,000 years, to the Upper Paleolithic period, when it’s believed that hunter-gatherers boiled down the skin and bones of animals to create fat- and protein-rich broths. Lacking refrigeration, though, our forebears were bereft of jelly molds and cubes. Precursors to the now infamous Jell-O salad begin to appear in cookbooks in the 1300s. “Every single medieval cookbook at that time has gelatin in it,” says Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific. People at the time were thrilled by this “solid, jiggly thing.”

But making gelatin was laborious, relegating jelly molds to the dinner plates of those wealthy enough to afford servants. Gelatin’s popularity among the well-heeled waxed and waned for the next several centuries, and it might have been forgotten if not for a bit of serendipity. In the 1840s, Peter Cooper, inventor of America’s first steam locomotive and founder of Cooper Union, was running a successful glue factory. Realizing that glue might have other applications, he filed the first U.S. patent for a gelatin dessert in 1845. Though Cooper’s wife, Sarah, was supposedly responsible for devising gelatin recipes that incorporated fruit, the bland dessert never caught on. Then, in 1897, a carpenter in western New York named Pearle Bixby Wait added colors and flavors to powdered gelatin. Wait’s wife came up with the name Jell-O, the rights to which Wait sold to the Genesee Pure Food Company in 1899 for $450.

With a major corporation’s marketing budget behind it, Jell-O became a staple of American households. By the end of World War II, families from coast to coast were preparing jelly molds out of a box, and a dessert once reserved for the ultra-rich morphed into a food for the masses. By the time Jell-O salad fell out of favor around the 1980s, gelatin the ingredient had already crept into an array of boxed goods.

Today, it’s hard to find a person in America whose life hasn’t been touched by some gelatinous goody. Maybe you recall toasting marshmallows and sandwiching them into s’mores at summer camp, or digging for gummy worms in Oreo dirt. For me, it’s the Jell-O my mother would bring me in a white ceramic bowl whenever I had a sore throat or tummy ache. It smelled of nothing and tasted of love and iridescent orange.

Geltor’s story begins in 2015, when Lorestani and his business partner, Nick Ouzounov — the two met as molecular biology grad students at Princeton University — learned that the San Francisco incubator firm IndieBio had agreed to provide them with $250,000 and four months in the company’s lab. It was a chance for the duo to test their dream of reprogramming microbes to make collagen, the proteins that are pulled apart through physical or chemical forces to make gelatin.

The bodies of all animals contain collagen proteins, which are basically Mother Nature’s glue, ensuring that skin, bones, ligaments, and tendons remain stuck together. From species to species, animals differ not in the presence of collagens but how those proteins are braided together. The human body, for example, contains 28 unique collagen strands. Collagen is “all variations on a single, repetitive theme,” Lorestani says.

“It just seems completely absurd to us that we are still relying on sentient beings as factories,” Lorestani says.

According to PETA, “moving away from using dead animals’ body parts is always a good decision.”

Currently, the vast majority of gelatin in the marketplace is extracted from livestock animals, especially pigs and cows, because of their abundance. But Lorestani and Ouzounov, who are both vegetarian, are designing gelatin for a future in which raising animals en masse only to slaughter them may no longer be necessary. “When I started looking at the kind of systemic challenges that lead to antibiotic resistance emerging in communities, and then in hospitals … the food system plays a central role in there,” Lorestani says. “It just seems completely absurd to us that we are still relying on sentient beings as factories.” That sentiment echoes historian Yuval Noah Harari, who calls industrial farming one of the worst crimes ever committed. “The march of human progress is strewn with dead animals,” he writes in the Guardian. “Domesticated animals are collectively the most successful animals in the world, and at the same time they are individually the most miserable animals that have ever existed.”

One criticism of Geltor’s work is that the effort to create lab-grown gelatin will do little to reduce the consumption of meat sourced from industrial farms, since most gelatin comes from the unwanted byproducts of livestock that have been raised for slaughter. Lorestani counters that any progress — however incremental — away from the cruelty of large-scale farming is a net good. There’s also a chance that by fabricating gelatin in a lab, Lorestani and Ouzounov could discover the molecular recipe for products superior to those currently on the market. Theoretically, Geltor could use any collagen from any animal, even from species that have gone extinct, while most gelatin comes from hogs and cattle whose meat is destined for your local grocery store. Lorestani and Ouzounov can experiment with different combinations of animal collagen, their only goal to create gelatin with the ideal binding strength and texture, capable of producing wobblier wobbles or stiffer stiffness.

That’s why, upon arriving at IndieBio, the duo began combing through protein sequence databases, scanning the tree of life — including pigs, cows, chickens, fish, elephants, even mastodons — for collagen sequences that they could back-translate into genetic sequences that would be optimal for fermentation. Once those DNA sequences — or genes — were pieced together, Lorestani and Ouzounov placed an order with a custom gene-printing company, and several weeks later the genes arrived, nestled inside test tubes that looked empty to the naked eye. Ouzounov poured water into one of the test tubes to form a mixture. (The first step to growing anything, Lorestani quips, is to add water.) They then used electricity to stimulate the formation of a pore in the microbe’s membrane. Once the hole was ready, they jammed in a braided strand (the specifics of this process, Lorestani insists, are proprietary), and poured the now-engineered microbes into a glass container about the size of a juice cup.

Once inside the cup, the microbes were given time to ferment — that is, to replicate so as to emit byproducts. The fermentation process for lab-grown gelatin turns out to be remarkably similar to the standard method of brewing beer, in which wort is fed to yeast in giant fermentation vats. As the yeast eat the wort, they emit alcohol. In Lorestani’s lab, the microbes produce not alcohol, but collagen.

The process is persnickety, Lorestani says, because DNA sequences that make sense in one living system may translate in another as gibberish. With some fiddles and tweaks, however, microbes can be coaxed into creating the same proteins as animals, making the building blocks of life somewhat like the picture on the box of a jigsaw puzzle. Many different puzzle cuts — whether chiseled by nature or by a couple of Princeton-trained biologists — can be assembled to recreate that same picture. Are those complete images, then, not the same thing?

Genetically engineering microbes and replicating them to generate useful byproducts is a practice that extends back almost 30 years. In 1990, the Food and Drug Administration approved chymosin, an enzyme made from genetically modified E. coli and used to curdle cheese. Until then, the primary method of curdling cheese required calf rennet, an enzyme retrieved from the fourth stomach lining of slaughtered baby cows. Chymosin was among the first genetically engineered products to be approved by the FDA.

In 1991, FDA official Eric Flamm published a paper in Nature Biotechnology titled, “How FDA Approved Chymosin: A Case History” that became an unofficial blueprint for how regulators would treat genetically modified food ingredients. At stake was whether chymosin should be treated as a new additive, which would require additional safety testing. The FDA determined that chymosin and calf rennet were “virtually indistinguishable,” thus allowing chymosin to receive the same Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS, status as rennet. Today, other food products made with genetically modified microbes yet treated as GRAS include many vitamins and vanillin (the version derived from petrochemicals, not the rare and expensive vanilla grown in Madagascar).

Geltor’s first attempts to create lab-grown gelatin used genetically engineered mastodon collagen.

Lorestani and Ouzounov are counting on earning the same categorization for their gelatin, which they may achieve by demonstrating that Geltor’s product is materially the same as naturally occurring gelatin; or, by showing that their engineered gelatin is made from ingredients that have a history of safe human consumption. But even though Geltor may attain GRAS status through the FDA, attitudes on the approval process vary. According to PETA, a protein factory that steers us away from real animal products is an unequivocal good. “Gelatin is typically made from the boiled skin, tendons, ligaments, and bones of pigs or cows, making it one of the more gruesome items out there,” reads an email from PETA media relations. “Moving away from using dead animals’ body parts is always a good decision, and PETA looks forward to a bright future for lab-grown gelatin.”

The environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth, however, remains skeptical of the practice of combining the DNA of separate organisms to create new products. Dana Perls, a senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth who focuses on biotechnology and genetic engineering, points out that the GRAS designation process is tilted in favor of industry, with companies suggesting food products that deserve GRAS status to the FDA, and the administration then agreeing or disagreeing with that judgment. “GRAS is an antiquated, outdated, voluntary process based on company data,” Perls says. “It’s like a self-audit. … People want natural, authentic, and real food.”

By January 2017, Lorestani and Ouzounov had moved their operation out of San Francisco and across the Bay into an old Dodge factory in San Leandro. They’d hired 10 employees and named their company Geltor, a made-up word that Lorestani has, on occasion, convinced people refers to the Nordic god of fermentation.

Besides the technicalities of engineering microbes to make collagen, Lorestani and Ouzounov also obsessed over how to convince potential clients that their product was truly meat-free. (Even in the engineered meat space, the foundational DNA is often derived from actual animals.) Ouzounov suggested genetically engineering microbes to produce the collagen of an extinct animal, to provide ironclad proof that no living creatures were harmed in the making of their gelatin. They briefly considered dinosaurs, but given the age of the source material and gaps in the genetic sequence, an attempt to patch together dinosaur collagen genes felt too uncertain. Instead, Ouzounov and Lorestani honed in on woolly mammoths and mastodons, which both died off a more manageable 4,000 to 10,000 years ago. “We chose not to make the woolly mammoth because their collagen protein sequence is identical to the Asian elephant sequence,” Lorestani explains. “And Asian elephants walk around today, so that was less interesting.”

It took about a day for Lorestani and Ouzounov’s microbes to produce something approximating mastodon collagen. The two transferred the clear, odorless solution into a small container and took it back to their rental home, 20 minutes away, in an Uber. It was time to test-drive their product — to see if it jiggled. Once in their kitchen, the duo looked up recipes and began digging out measuring cups and spoons. Advanced degrees notwithstanding, neither had ever made gelatin candy, which can quiver into wreckage if the recipe or execution is off. Their goal was to create a mastodon gumdrop that remained firm at room temperature. If successful, they planned to display the gummy at IndieBio’s Demo Day, where investors and previous grant recipients gather to ponder the futures of medicine and food — and the billions of dollars they hope to make off them. But the candy in the container was too loose, so Ouzounov and Lorestani added some plant-based gelling agents, along with a healthy heaping of sugar, for extra stability. What they did not add were citric acid and essential oils, the ingredients that lend gummy bears their tartness and fun. The only goal was perfecting the texture.

Once the mixture was just right, Ouzounov poured the liquid into several inch-long elephant molds that they had bought on Etsy and placed them in the fridge to set. A few hours later, they pulled out their wobbly gems. Ouzounov popped a mastodon gummy in his mouth (making him the first human in a really, really long time to eat mastodon) and chewed for a moment, before he turned to Lorestani and said, “It tastes like we’re not optimizing for flavor.”

When I visited Geltor’s headquarters, the office space was filled with long desks and a couch for late nights. Lorestani unlocked a set of glass doors and led me to the lab, which smelled vaguely of grass and socks. Andrew, an intern, was pouring water into test tubes. We arrived at a white refrigerator filled with gelatin samples. But, Lorestani explained, these specimens were made to replicate the collagens found in cows, pigs, and fish — not mastodons. After the initial burst of publicity the company received for its mastodon gummies, Lorestani and Ouzounov’s mission had shifted to piecing together collagen molecules from throughout the tree of life to form gelatin superior to anything made through standard processes. “You can make variations on these building blocks,” he says. “You can assemble them in ways that give you new properties. You are no longer limited to the stiffnesses of gelatin that you can get from the handful of very abundant animals.”

But mimicking nature and attempting to improve upon it are two different goals, and the FDA approval process for products that do the latter involves much more scrutiny. The quickest path for Geltor to bring a product to market requires the company avoid crossing the line from mimicry into augmentation. According to the FDA, if the use of conventional or recombinant DNA techniques for developing new microbial strains results in the creation of an unapproved food additive, the administration must review the safety of the food additive prior to marketing. If Lorestani were to invent a wholly novel food product, such as a gelatin so stiff it could not exist in nature, then it would be ineligible for GRAS status and the FDA would intervene.

Geltor has had greater initial success bringing lab-grown gelatin to market for use in cosmetics, but the company remains focused on creating gelatin for food. “Cosmetics and personal care have always been the tip of the spear,” Lorestani says.

Back inside Geltor’s lab, Lorestani opened the fridge and removed two gelatin samples. The first was almost invisible inside its test tube; the second, a peppercorn-sized morsel, sat inside a one-inch petri dish. I had envisioned something larger and shaped like a bear.

Monica Bhatia, Geltor’s director of fermentation, explained that the team was getting close to determining ideal growing conditions for the microbes, including nutrients, temperature, and acidity levels. But, she added, going from a gram of gelatin to the tons needed to supply the food industry would require more work. Since this visit, Geltor has found ways to further optimize the gelatin-growing process for quality and scale, but at the time, she and her staff seemed thrilled just to have created something that gelled.

I stared at the specimen. “Can I try it?” I asked. Lorestani demurred. Geltor’s gelatin was not yet food-grade, and he was unwilling to experiment on an overzealous reporter. I prodded the lump with my index finger and struggled to decide if it felt like a gummy worm.

In April 2018, Geltor proved it could fabricate gelatin in a lab. But the product they rolled out — named N-Collage, a play on “collagen” — wasn’t meant for consumption. Instead, it was intended to be slathered on faces. “The first place where we just really couldn’t keep up with demand, even after we had scaled,” Lorestani says, “was in the beauty market.”

Collagen is a hot commodity in the world of skin care. Consumers, particularly in the Chinese, Indian, and Japanese markets, believe that the proteins increase skin hydration and decrease wrinkles. Many of those buyers would prefer a product made without harming animals.

By focusing, at least initially, on skincare, Lorestani and his team have also steered clear of the ick factor that prevents eating lab-grown meat from gaining widespread acceptance. Likewise, rival companies have entered the market for vegan beauty and fashion products. California-based Bolt Threads has been engineering spider silk for clothing, and Modern Meadow is working to make leather without cows. Lorestani adds that it was considerably easier to create enough material for a beauty product containing just 1 percent collagen compared to a food like Jell-O.

And yet, making a jiggly, Jell-O-like product that people can eat remains Geltor’s raison d’etre. “Cosmetics and personal care have always been the tip of the spear,” Lorestani says.

Consider, for instance, Bhatia’s route to working at Geltor. Bhatia, a Hindu who keeps a vegetarian diet, came to the United States from India 15 years ago to complete her doctorate. She developed a fondness for flavored yogurt, but at the time all the major brands were thickened with gelatin. This forced Bhatia to shop at specialty stores that carried pricier yogurts thickened with carrageenan or pectin, a big ask for a cash-strapped grad student. Then, a few years ago, Bhatia attended an IndieBio Demo Day and was so impressed with Lorestani’s vision for lab-grown gelatin that she eventually joined the company. Bhatia pauses, then quips: “I did not make a life decision based on yogurt.”

Bhatia’s devotion to the cause of a cheap, meat-free source of gelatin makes her something of an outlier. Bompas, the artist whose studio builds entire installations out of gelatin, says that most people don’t think about the stuff one way or another. And when gelatin does make a more overt appearance — as in gummies or Jell-O or in panna cotta at a top-tier restaurant — it is an abstraction, distant from the fatal oink from which it sprang. In that regard, all Geltor has to do is swap one stealth ingredient for another, and most consumers won’t even notice.

Bompas is confident that Geltor can break into the food world. “Bronze-grade gelatin is pretty horrid stuff,” he says. “You can smell the pig from across the room.” But silver grade, which Bompas often works with for his projects, is totally acceptable. “If they can get to silver,” Bompas predicts, “they’re into the industry.”

Sujata Gupta is the new social sciences writer for Science News. She was a 2017-18 Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT. Before that, she freelanced for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Nature, Discover, NPR, Scientific American, and others. She lives in Burlington VT.
Fact checked by Rowan Walrath
Copy edited by Rachel Kreiter

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