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Gelatine: The search for an animal-free alternative

Article-Gelatine: The search for an animal-free alternative

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Whilst synthetic biology is showing promise for producing premium collagen ingredients, there is still no prospect of a like-for-like animal-free substitute for gelatine for everyday food applications.

The rise of veganism and increased interest in plant-based foods as part of a more sustainable food system are driving demand for plant-based gelatine alternatives.

According to Future Market Insights, the global gelatine substitutes market is set to witness growth at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.4% and top a valuation of $4 billion by 2032.

However, realising these growth projections requires innovation from the scientific and ingredients communities, as, according to Andy Baxendale, a food industry consultant known in the industry as The Sweet Consultant, to date, no-one has come up with a substitute that comes close to gelatine.

“Nothing compares to gelatine. Whoever comes up with something that compares to gelatine will rule the world (or at least the confectionery industry). They will be able to name their price as it is something a lot of people have been looking for for a long time. I have been in the confectionery industry since 1994 and it has been the holy grail since then,” he told Fi Global Insights.

Explaining what makes gelatine so hard to replicate, he said: “Gelatine is unique. It melts at body temperature when you put it your mouth so you get a good mouthfeel from the product, but also, it will aerate - create a foam - and there is nothing else on the market that performs both of those functions.”

He continued: “There are various different textural agents that can be used to give similar properties. There is agar jelly, locust bean gum and gum arabic, which has been used for a long time, but is a very hard gel. I also do a lot of work with pectin, which is from fruit, but that it is a much softer eat. It gives a very clean bite - not as chewy or elastic as gelatine.”

Most of the projects involving pectin have been in the functional confectionery and supplement area where gummies have become a popular format, said Baxendale.

“I have done a lot of work in the area of fortified confectionery in the last couple of years, and CBD is still looming large. Mostly, manufacturers of these products want them to be vegan friendly so almost everything I’ve done has been with pectin.”

He said that often the best strategy to get a close match for gelatine’s functionality is to combine different hydrocolloids and texturisers.

“I am currently waiting for a sample that blends locust bean and guar gum and is supposed to be a good gelling agent for gummies,” he said.

Another disadvantage of currently available alternatives is that they are more expensive than animal source gelatine, added Baxendale.

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Do smarties have the answers?

The only way in which he sees this situation changing is through scientific advancement that enables ingredients to be modified at a molecular level.

Researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada are doing exactly this - changing the properties of pea protein to make it thermally reversible like gelatine.

In its hydrolysed form, Baxendale said pea protein offers similar whipped properties to egg white, but has to be combined with other texturising agents to deliver a chewy texture. 

Now, a team of researchers led by Dr. Lingyun Chen claims to have discovered a way to create a plant-based gelatine substitute from pea protein. This product - for which they have a patent pending - is reportedly higher in protein than existing plant-based gelatine substitutes, as well as having the ability to change easily from liquid to gel – and back again.

During an experiment, we accidentally found that certain conditions, such as pH, caused thermal reversibilityin pea protein, which could make industrial applications much easier,stated Chen, in an article from Natural Products Canada, a not-for-profit that supports Canadian natural product innovation.

NPC is contributing $78,430 to help Chen’s team evaluate how the pea protein-based gelatine substitute performs in real food applications, such as gummy bears and plant-based yogurt, and to prove its ability to scale up.

The NPC money will be very important to demonstrate that our process can be used in industry. There are certain treatments, such as pasteurisation, that you dont do in the lab. If the ingredient can survive these treatments, it will be that much closer to market, said Chen.

Bio-identical collagen

There are also biotech companies who are working on animal-free technologies for producing bio-identical collagen.

Last month [August] North Carolina start-up Jellatech announced a US$ 3.5m oversubscribed Seed Round to enable scale-up of its protein manufacturing platform, which uses cellular agriculture to produce ‘clean’, bio-identical collagen.

Another US biotech company, Geltor, is producing ‘biodesigned’ vegan collagen via precision fermentation - taking the genetic programme that exists in animal cells and inserting it into a microbe, which is then fermented to produce a protein.

Geltor is using this platform to develop collagen and elastin ingredients for the food, nutrition, hair care and skin care markets.

Unlike many other biotech players, Geltor has succeeded in scaling up - its ‘vegan’ collagens have been used in skin care creams since 2019 and in 2022 the company completed its first commercial-scale manufacturing run of PrimaColl, a collagen for food and beverage applications.

However, for the most part, these novel technologies are still some years away from commercialisation, with the obstacles of scale-up and regulation to overcome, and tend to target higher value applications. So for the time being at least, product developers looking for non-animal source gelatine for products like confectionery, desserts, soups and sauces will have no choice but to fall back on conventional alternatives.