When you think of Jell-O, what comes to mind?
Birthday parties, high school lunchrooms, hospital food, or jiggly vodka shots?
Jell-O has been on the shelves and in our homes since 1897.
But have you ever stopped to ask, what’s Jell-O’s environmental impact?
In this post, we’ll examine everything from Jell-O’s ingredients, health benefits, uses and biodegradability to its effect on the environment.
Jell-O, Jello, and Gelatin – What’s the Difference?
Jell-O is the brand name for a line of desserts currently owned by the Kraft Heinz Company.
Whereas “jello” is often used as the blanket term for all generic, gelatin-based desserts.
You will see all three terms used throughout this post:
- Jell-O refers to the specific brand.
- Jello is the word we’ll use to include generic brands and homemade jello.
- Gelatin is the main ingredient in jello.
What Is Jello Made of?
Jello desserts contain gelatin, food colorings, sweeteners, and artificial flavors.
What Is Gelatin Made of?
Gelatin is the base ingredient in all jello and is a pure protein made of animal proteins called collagen.
Collagen comes from boiling the bones and hides of cattle and the hides of pigs that have been processed for their meat.
Gelatin is a highly versatile product used not only in jello but in a variety of foods, soft drinks, candy (hello gummy bears), cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and is even used to clarify some wines and beers.
Is Jello Bad for You?
Jell-O’s popular slogan from the 50s and 60s, ‘There’s always room for Jell-O,’ suggests that Jell-O is a ‘light’ dessert you can enjoy despite a full stomach.
Jello is often a popular item for dieters because it’s low-calorie and fat-free. But low-cal and fat-free are not synonymous with healthy.
Despite helping you slim down, store-bought jello is high in sugar, low in fiber, and offers you virtually zero nutrients, vitamins, or minerals.
Read a strawberry flavored Jell-O nutrition label here.
Are Food Dyes in Jello Bad for You?
The food dyes used in jello should be consumed in small doses because they are made from ingredients extracted from petroleum which are harmful in large quantities.
Researchers have been investigating the link between artificial ingredients such as food coloring and behavioral issues in children since the 70s.
Much of the recent evidence confirms a direct link in children with a food dye sensitivity.
Is Gelatin Good for You?
“Gelatin is a product made by cooking collagen. It is made almost entirely of protein, and its unique amino acid profile gives it many health benefits”.
Gelatin when not mixed with artificial ingredients and sugar can improve bone health, alleviate joint pain, sharpen mental function, firm skin, and strengthen hair.
Because of the artificial ingredients and high sugar content, jello is not a healthy source of gelatin. The health benefits of gelatin are likely overridden by jello’s downsides.
To take advantage of gelatin’s health benefits, you can take gelatin supplements, make your own gelatin at home, or cook a bone broth.
Before taking a gelatin supplement, you should consult with your doctor. Side effects could include upset stomach, gas, and bloating.
Gelatin allergies are rare but can occur.
If Jello Isn’t Healthy, Why Is It Served in Hospitals?
Hospitality and food services at Tuft’s Medical Center, Massachusetts states that post-operation, patients are recommended to consume only clear liquids. And jello is considered a clear liquid at room temperature.
Despite being served post-operation, the staff at Tuft’s Medical Center confirm that jello provides virtually no nutrients nor health benefits, and a clear liquid diet that includes jello should not be followed long term.
What About Home-Made Jello?
Home-made jello is an excellent alternative to store-bought jello and requires few ingredients:
- Boiled water
- Gelatin, preferably produced by an ethical company sourcing their gelatin from grass-fed cattle
- Natural fruit juice free from artificial coloring and added sugar.
You can find step-by-step directions here or watch how to make healthy home-made jello:
Is Jello Bad for the Environment?
All food production and distribution have an environmental impact. The real questions become:
How serious is that impact, and if it’s high, what should we eat instead?
The Impact of Jello’s Manufacturing Process
With the exception of soft drinks, processed and refined foods and beverages typically have a higher environmental impact than whole plant foods because more steps and resources go into the manufacturing process.
Manufacturing processes consume high levels of water and electricity. Because there is no such thing as ‘local’ jello, more transportation is involved.
And with processed products, buyers can often expect multi-layer packaging; plastic or paper interior packaging, and cardboard exterior packaging.
The steps to produce jello are:
- Inspection and cutting – the animal parts are inspected, rotted parts are discarded, and chopping machines cut the bones, skins, and tissues into smaller pieces.
- Degreasing and roasting – the animal parts are washed and degreased in hot water, and then moved to an industrial dryer.
Acid and alkaline treatment – The parts are soaked in acid or alkali, like lime, to remove bacteria and release collagen.
The liming process is known to pollute land and create wastewater.
- Boiling – The animal parts are boiled as workers begin to extract the liquid that contains collagen. This liquid is heated again and sterilized.
Evaporating and grinding – the liquid is filtered and piped into evaporators to separate it from the solid collagen.
The liquid is discarded as an unused byproduct, but the collagen is pressed into sheets. From here, it can go through a grinder and be made into a powder.
- Flavoring and coloring – Sweeteners and flavorings are added.
- Packaging – An automated packaging process vacuum seals the product into its container.
Watch how gelatin is made:
Jello’s Impact as an Animal-Based Food Product
Because gelatin comes from livestock, let’s examine livestock’s environmental consequences.
Recent studies suggest that the role of livestock in global carbon levels has been somewhat exaggerated.
In the U.S., for example, the transportation and electricity sectors emit far more greenhouse gases than the livestock industry.
Despite that, animal-based foods produce more negative consequences for the environment than plant foods because livestock farming is more resource-intensive and creates more carbon emissions.
- Animals produce natural waste and that manure requires a waste-management system.
- Manure management systems use large amounts of fresh water and produce nitrous oxide.
- Ruminant mammals produce methane.
- The clearing of forests to create more pastureland for grazing threatens biodiversity.
- 33% of farmlands are used to produce livestock feed. According to the FAO, if only 40% of these croplands were used for direct human consumption, there would be enough cropland to feed the world’s population.
Moving towards becoming a more responsible consumer means being aware of all of the products that contain animal products, in order to avoid or reduce the number of animal products we consume, and when possible choose local, grass-fed meat.
Using Gelatin as an Eco-Friendly Food Packaging
Even though gelatin might not be the most sustainable option for your food choices, it’s a promising option for food packaging materials.
If gelatin is made from leftover parts of cattle and pigs that are already being used for their meat, why not repurpose these leftover parts rather than disposing of them as waste?
Gelatin can be used as a biodegradable food packaging film that can replace polymer-based (plastic) food packaging.
Great news, right?
But making gelatin food packaging into a sustainable alternative to plastic films will also depend largely on reducing the impact of the gelatin production process.
This is a topic that many researchers are already looking into, stating that producers can easily decrease the water wasted during gelatin manufacturing by making some automatic processes manual, and by replacing the liming process.
For a deeper look at biodegradable plastic alternatives read Bioplastic Vs. Plastic – Advantages of Biodegradable Bioplastics
Are There Vegan Jello Alternatives?
If you’re vegan or simply limiting your meat consumption, you can make vegan jello at home by replacing gelatin with the following alternatives:
- Agar – made from seaweed
- Pectin – made from fruit rinds and skins (needs sugar to gel)
- Vegetable gums – xanthan gum and guar gum can be bought as powders
Watch how to make vegan jello here:
Is Jello Biodegradable?
Home-made jello with natural ingredients is 100% biodegradable.
But to determine if store-bought jello is biodegradable, we have to determine whether its ingredients are.
- Gelatin is an animal product and a pure protein. As such, it is biodegradable.
- Sugar is biodegradable, as well.
- Artificial sweeteners are not. Not only do artificial sweeteners not metabolize in the human body but they also do not degrade in the environment, even when passed through traditional wastewater treatment processes.
- Artificial flavors and food dyes are often made with ingredients extracted from inedible sources, such as petroleum and mixed in a lab. These synthetic mixes are not biodegradable.
It’s also important to take jello’s packaging into consideration. Many brands of jello are vacuumed sealed into a polypropylene plastic.
This plastic does not break down in the environment. The accumulation of polypropylene plastics creates serious environmental problems.
If jello’s exterior packaging is made of cardboard or multi-ply paper, these materials are relatively biodegradable when recycled.
Is the Kraft Heinz Company Committed to Sustainability?
The Kraft Heinz company, owners of the Jell-O brand, released an updated Environmental Social Governance Report in September 2020, committing to responsible and sustainable business practices.
They announced the sustainability goals they seek to reach by 2025 which include the following:
- Procure 100% of their electricity from renewable sources
- Decrease water use by 15%
- Decrease energy use by 15%
- Decrease waste by 20%
- Create 100% recyclable, compostable, or reusable packaging
- Sustainably source tomatoes, palm oil, and eggs
- Reduce use of sodium and sugar in their products
- Partner with farmers that respect the five freedoms of animal welfare
Despite their efforts, the consumption of Jell-O continues to fall.
For an interesting look at Jell-O’s beginnings and recent decline watch ‘The Rise and Fall of Jell-O’:
Store-bought jello is not entirely biodegradable because of its artificial ingredients.
Whereas home-made jello made from natural ingredients is 100% biodegradable.
The current owners of the Jell-O brand, the Kraft Heinz Company are making commendable efforts to reduce their carbon footprint.
Yet despite their effort, Jell-O will remain a processed food that offers you virtually zero nutrients, vitamins or minerals.
If you’re looking for a sweet snack that’s easy on the waistline, you’re better off whipping up a batch of home-made jello or reaching for some fruit from your local orchard.