July 3, 2008

Just In Case You Wanted To Be Whipped Into A Needless Frenzy

Then you can worry about the possibility that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (that is, mad cow disease) and its close cousin Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease can be transmitted by way of gelatin.

You see, gelatin is made from animal products -- bones, cartilage, and skin, mainly of pigs and cows. Basically, you boil these remnants of slaughtered meat animals, and the collagen from the remnants is released into the boil solution, and that becomes the ubiquitous tasteless, jelly-like substance we all associate with brightly-colored fruit-flavored dessert. But it's not just in Jell-O. Gelatin is used in basically everything:
It serves for supplementary source of protein, carrier material, bonding agent, stabiliser and emulsifier. It is also used as an aid for frothing up, flavour enhancement, common salt replacement, clearing of drinks and as a collagen source for dietetics.

It can be found in jelly, jellied meat and aspic, in ice cream, some margarines, sweets like gummy bears, soft caramels, marshmallows, meringues, liquorice and cream-filled chocolate cakes, in gateau fillings and desserts, in milk products like yoghurt and cremes as well as in pies and convenience food. Cream and foam are often made of jelly with beaten egg white, whipped cream or cream cheese.

Quality-tested wines, cider, apple juice and in some countries also beer, are freed from blurrings, tannin agent and bitter constituents with the help of gelatin. From fizzy drinks it is not removed at all. In milk-shakes with fruit or vegetable additives gelatin prevents the milk from curdling. Vegetable juices are thickened with gelatin and enriched with vitamins and minerals. In tinned meat gelatin binds the meat juice. In some cases salami and pepper sausage are protected from drying up by gelatin.

The pharmaceutical industries use gelatin in soft and hard medicament capsules, for binding in tablets and dragees, in form of sponges for treating wounds and as a colloid to expand the plasma after severe losses of blood. They are also included in vitamin compounds and cosmetics. People having problems with their nail growth or with their joints and cartilage are treated with gelatin. Animal food industries sometimes use gelatin in substitute milk products for calves. As gelatin is so omnipresent, nobody in the industrial nations can avoid its assimilation.
So you see, it's in everything you eat, nearly everything you drink, it's used in the pills you take and the grooming products you apply to intimate parts of your body (like your teeth and gums) every day. Sorry about that, vegans, Jews, and Muslims, but if you're serious about observing your dietary laws, you need to avoid eating and drinking pretty much everything. (Gelatin can be made from non-mammalian sources like certain fish. That kind of gelatin is kosher (and halal) but it's rather uncommon. And of course, it's still not vegan.)

And since a significant amount of the raw material for gelatin comes from cows -- their skin, cartilage, and bones -- that means that if the animal has BSE or CJD, it can be transmitted to someone who ingests it by way of the collagen protein strands used in making gelatin.

Now, this is, like I said, a needless and purely theoretical worry. First of all, the animal has to have the disease, typically caused by the animal having ingested prions from products made of like animals. ("Attack of the Cannibal Cows!") This practice is theoretically banned or at least tightly controlled in most industrial nations now, although it still goes on. And, the boiling and extraction process destroys the integrity of the collagen molecule, thus extracting the raw material for gelatin. So even if you had an infected animal, the process of extracting gelatin from its remnants would likely destroy the prions that would, virus-like, infect you.

And if you're like me (and I know I am) then you eat beef and pork on a regular basis. Most people in the industrialized world eat at least one of these two meats with some regularity. And they don't get these diseases. Eating meat at all puts you at a much higher risk of getting these diseases than ingesting gelatin can. All this exercise really tells us is that no one is at zero risk of these sorts of diseases.

But then again, no one is at zero risk of being killed by a meteor strike, either.

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