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Torn between making your favorite gelatin treats and sticking to your nutritional standards? Typical flavored gelatin mixes have ingredient lists that read like chemistry experiments. They contain artificial flavors, chemicals to control acidity, preservatives, and synthetic food dyes galore, including Red 40 and Yellow 6, often made from petroleum byproducts. Studies suggest these artificial colors may spark damaging inflammation in your body and trigger hyperactivity in children.
Sugar-free gelatin mixes might be worse. They typically replace sugar with artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and acesulfame potassium. These sugar substitutes may increase your risk of weight gain and unfavorably shift the makeup of your gut microbiome.
Fortunately, you can find natural boxed gelatin mixes. These include options that are naturally colored, GMO-free, vegan, or low in sugar. While starting from scratch with plain gelatin or agar gives you the most control over what’s in your dish, you can reach for natural boxed options when you need something quick and easy.
Plain, Pastured Gelatin
If you buy plain gelatin, you can sweeten and flavor it yourself using natural ingredients. But not all gelatin is equal in quality. Since the product is extracted from the skin and connective tissues of cattle or pigs, you should consider how the animals were raised.
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“Choose gelatin from animals that have been pastured or grass-fed,” says Sylvie McCracken, author of the e-book The Gelatin Secret. “You want it to be as clean and natural as possible.” In contrast, feedlot-raised cattle are typically fed genetically modified corn produced with toxic pesticides. You don’t want these residues in your gelatin.
Quality aside, using plain gelatin is similar to using the flavored kind. However, one exception is that plain gelatin may not dissolve as easily. That’s because the sugar in flavored gelatin helps separate the gelatin granules so they don’t form lumps when you add hot liquid. To avoid lumps, McCracken advises mixing plain gelatin with cold liquid before adding it to hot liquid.
You’ll also need to add flavor, color, and sweeteners. McCracken uses fresh-squeezed, natural fruit juices — such as blueberry, strawberry, or orange — to flavor and color gelatin. The juice replaces all or part of the water you’d normally add. Plant-based food coloring or hibiscus tea can also be used for color. For sweetening, you can use pure cane sugar, maple syrup, honey, or stevia.
Also remember that gelatin is a protein; it’s basically a cooked form of collagen. (Learn more about collagen in “What’s Behind the Collagen Craze.”) Protein-digesting enzymes in certain raw fruits and fresh-squeezed juices can break down gelatin and prevent it from solidifying. These fruits include fresh pineapple, papaya, mango, and kiwi. If you use these, boil them for about 5 minutes first to inactivate the enzymes. Or, you can use the canned varieties, which are precooked.
Agar (sometimes called “agar agar”) is a seaweed-based product and great vegan alternative to gelatin. It’s extracted from red algae and forms a firm gel when cooked and set. You can buy agar as powder, flakes, noodle-like strands, or bars. “I prefer working with agar powder,” says Lori Rasmussen, who shares her vegan recipes at My Quiet Kitchen. “The powder is easy to measure accurately and dissolves more quickly than the other forms.”
Plain agar and unflavored gelatin both are nearly colorless and flavorless on their own. “Though agar looks like gelatin, there are subtle differences in the texture,” Rasmussen says. “Agar has a firmer mouthfeel. And when sliced, it separates in a way that I’d describe as fissuring.” Before creating a new recipe with it, make a test batch to learn how agar performs.
“Agar sets much more quickly than gelatin,” Rasmussen says. “After boiling agar, you should immediately pour the hot liquid into the mold or pan you’re using. It begins to set within minutes, even at room temperature. You can then transfer it to your refrigerator to chill and fully set.”
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Rasmussen provides these additional tips for working with agar:
- Watch proportions. For every 2 cups of liquid, you generally need about 1-3/4 teaspoons of agar powder and 1/3 to 1/2 cup of sugar. If you use fruit juice as the liquid, you may be able to decrease the amount of sugar. If you use thicker liquids, such as coconut milk, you can use a little less agar.
- Substitute and adjust. To use powdered agar in place of plain gelatin in a recipe, swap it for an equal amount. If that doesn’t give the desired result, adjust accordingly: If you want a softer gel, use less agar or add a little more liquid. If you want a firmer gel, use more agar.
- Whisk agar into a cool liquid first. If you heat up your liquid before adding the agar, lumps will form.
- Cook it briefly. Once you bring the powdered agar mixture to a boil (while whisking it continually), simmer it for 30 to 60 seconds. It’s cooked enough when it looks completely clear and you can no longer see any agar granules.
- Keep mix-ins small, and add them when agar is hot. Chop fruit, nuts, or other add-ins into small pieces so the agar will cut more neatly. If you wait to add them to the agar mixture when it’s cooled, it will have already solidified.
- Add layers carefully. If you let the bottom layer set too much, the next layer won’t stick to it. So, pour the next layer when the bottom layer is just beginning to set (it will have a slight “skin” on the surface).
Gelatin-type dishes don’t have to be nutrient-poor concoctions riddled with artificial ingredients. If you make them with natural boxed mixes, or from scratch using unflavored gelatin and pure fruit juice, they can be nutritious treats fit for any table.
What to Buy
Natural, Flavored Boxed Mixes
See some sustainable gelatin recipes:
Marsha McCulloch is a registered dietitian and freelance writer with a special interest in integrative and functional medicine. Follow her on Twitter @MarshaMcCulloch.