What Exactly Is Jell-O Made From?

By: Linda C. Brinson  | 

Jell-O
One of the best things about Jell-O is that is wiggles and jiggles. But how does it do that? Kraft Heinz

"Watch it wiggle, see it jiggle." Those of us old enough surely remember this TV jingle for Jell-O. And if you don't, chances are good that you've eaten the stuff at some point in your life. There are endless recipes that use Jell-O to create everything from simple squares to ornate molds that incorporate varied flavors, fruits and whipped toppings.

But here's the million-dollar question. What is Jell-O?

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Jell-O is a brand-name of gelatin made by Kraft Heinz. It includes a few basic ingredients:

  1. water
  2. sugar or artificial sweetener
  3. fruit juices for flavoring (like strawberry concentrate)
  4. gelatin
  5. coloring

But what is it about Jell-O that lets you mold it into so many different shapes? In a word gelatin.

But what is gelatin? Gelatin is a processed version of a structural protein called collagen. It comes from animals, including humans, and makes up almost one-third of all the protein in the human body.

Collagen is a fibrous protein that strengthens the body's connective tissues and allows them to be elastic — that is, to stretch without breaking. As you get older, your body makes less collagen, and individual collagen fibers become increasingly cross-linked with each other. You might experience this as stiff joints from less flexible tendons, or wrinkles due to loss of skin elasticity.

Gelatin can come from the collagen in cow or pig bones, hides and connective tissues. The gelatin in Jell-O is most likely from pigskin.

Collagen doesn't dissolve in water in its natural form, so it must be modified to make gelatin. Manufacturers grind the pigskin and treat it with a strong acid for about 24 hours. Then the pretreated skin is boiled to unravel the protein bonds in the collagen. The resulting product is a gelatin solution.

There are, of course, safety controls at every step of the process ensure purity. That final solution is chilled into a jelly-like material, cut and dried. At this point, the dried gelatin — about 10 percent water — is ground. If it's going to make Jell-O, it will be ground into a fine powder.

How does this powder become the Jell-O we eat?

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What Makes Jell-O Wiggle and Jiggle?

Jell-O
When you boil gelatin to make Jell-O, the triple helix structure breaks down into free-floating protein chains. When you refrigerate that, the chains come back together again, sort of. But they're not a perfect triple helix, so the Jell-O acts like a solid, but isn't really one. Chembam.com/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

When you buy a box of Jell-O, you get a small packet of the powdered gelatin that also contains sugar or artificial sweetener, flavorings and colors added. At room temperature, the gelatin protein is in the form of a triple helix. This is a fairly ordered structure not unlike that of DNA. With DNA, two chains of nucleotides are twisted together in a spiral pattern resembling a ladder, in a design known as a double helix.

The gelatin protein has three separate chains of amino acids (called polypeptide chains) lined up and twisted around each other. These amino acids are mostly glycine, proline and hydroxyproline. Weak bonds hold the helix together.

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To make a gelatin mold, you add boiling water to the powdered gelatin. You then stir the mixture for about three minutes until the gelatin dissolves completely and allow it to set in a refrigerator.

What happens to gelatin when you add boiling water? The energy of the heated water breaks the weak bonds that hold the gelatin strands together. The helical structure unwinds, and you're left with free-floating protein chains. When you refrigerate the Jell-O mixture, the chains slowly come back together again.

But instead of reforming into a perfect triple helix, some of the liquid gets trapped between the polypeptide chains. So the Jell-O becomes a trapped liquid in protein chains, or something that acts like a solid, but not really one. This is the Jell-O "jiggle" that everyone loves. Scientists call this stage a colloid, or the substance formed when tiny particles are dispersed within a solution.

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What Other Foods Have Gelatin?

Marshmallows
One of the main ingredients in marshmallows? You guessed it, gelatin. MirageC/Getty Images

Gelatin is a common ingredient in foods because it's so versatile. It can be used as a gelling agent (as in Jell-O), or as a thickener, to give foods a more pleasing texture. It's also used to emulsify (or stabilize) processed foods, and to clarify juices, vinegars and even beer. It's in everything from yogurt to chewing gum.

There also are types of gelatins made from certain animals like fish to meet dietary and religious standards. And those who eat vegan or vegetarian diets should look for special gelatin versions suited for them.

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Here are some other foods that commonly contain gelatin:

  • gummy bears
  • sour cream
  • margarine
  • jelly
  • aspics
  • cream cheese
  • cake icing and frosting
  • marshmallows
  • soups, sauces and gravies
  • canned ham and chicken
  • corned beef
  • sausage
  • whipped cream

Gelatin is even used to make the coating for pills that makes them easier to swallow. It's also in lozenges and ointments. Cosmetics may contain a form of gelatin that doesn't gel. You may see it on the label as "hydrolyzed collagen."

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Originally Published: Oct 13, 2011

Jell-O FAQs

Is Jell-O still made from bones?
Gelatin can come from collagen derived from cow or pig bones, hides, and connective tissues. The gelatin in Jell-O today most often comes from pigskin.
What is Jell-O powder made of?
Jell-O powder consists of five ingredients: water, gelatin, sugar or artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, and food coloring.
What are the most popular Jell-O flavors?
Cherry, raspberry, strawberry, and lime are some of Jell-O's most beloved and long-lasting flavors.
Is Jell-O good for you?
Jell-O typically contains a lot of sugar, but it's also very hydrating, which is why it's one of the foods served to patients after surgery when their bodies don't have the strength to digest much else. It's also low in calories and fat-free, so while you shouldn't go nuts, eating some for dessert may be helpful in weight loss efforts.
What company makes Jell-O?
Jell-O is owned by Kraft Foods, who also makes Philadelphia-brand cream cheese, macaroni & Cheese, and Kool-Aid.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Chemistry Daily: The Chemistry Encyclopedia. "Gelatin." (Sept. 24, 2011) http://www.chemistrydaily.com/chemistry/Gelatin
  • David Joachim and Andrew Schloss Fine Cooking. "The Science of Gelatin."
  • Gelatin Manufacturers Institute of America. "How We Make Gelatin." (May 20, 2022) http://www.gelatin-gmia.com/uploads/1/1/8/4/118450438/gmia_gelatin_manual_2019.pdf
  • Goodsell, David. "Collagen: April 2000 Molecule of the Month." Protein Data Bank. (Sept. 26, 2011) http://www.pdb.org/pdb/101/motm.do?momID=4
  • Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "Collagen." (May 20, 2022) https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/collagen/
  • Joachim, David; Schloss, Andrew. Fine Cooking. "The Science of Gelatin." (May 20, 2022) https://www.finecooking.com/article/the-science-of-gelatin
  • Kraft Heinz Food Service. "JELL-O Strawberry Gelatin." (May 20, 2022) https://www.kraftheinz-foodservice.com/product/10043000052690/JELLO-Strawberry-Gelatin-33-oz-Cups-46-Count
  • New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. "The Science of Jell-O." (Sept. 24, 2011) http://infohost.nmt.edu/~fuierer/Mate%20101L%20Posters/Jello%2520revised.pdf
  • PETA. "Everything You Never Really Wanted To Know About Gelatin." Oct. 29, 2021. (May 20, 2022) https://www.peta.org/living/food/everything-never-really-wanted-know-gelatin/
  • Senese, Fred. "What's Jell-O Made of?" General Chemistry Online. Frostburg State University. (Sept. 26, 2011) http://antoine.frostburg.edu/chem/senese/101/consumer/faq/jello-composition.shtml

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