Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Joys of Gelatin

Everybody LOVES Jello. At some point, I think I owned every "Joys of Jello" cookbook they made. "Sunshine Salad"--which, if you're not familiar with, is lemon jello loaded with pineapple bits and shredded carrot--was a traditional Thanksgiving feast item. Really, I'm almost sure it came down to us from the Pilgrims. Anyway, it was traditional in our house--both growing up, and after I became the cook. And who doesn't love jello desserts made from any-flavored Jello and Cool Whip? Throw in a little canned fruit. Heavenly, right?

Heavenly, until I became aware.

Awareness is a burdensome thing. It demands action. Now that I know something, what will I do about it?

It was nothing short of a severe food allergy in my youngest son that caused me to start reading labels and to pay attention for the first time to Jello's troublesome ingredients. Besides gelatin, Jello products consist mostly of sugar and artificial ingredients-- artificial colors, artificial flavors and flavor enhancers, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives. Gelatin, itself, is an incredibly healthy substance, but toxins such as chemical additives are not.

There are some wonderful benefits to eating foods high in gelatin. Here are some highlights from an article by Laura Shoenfeld, a registered dietician with a Masters Degree in Public Health, entitled 5 Reasons Why Even Vegetarians Should Eat Gelatin...

  • Gelatin contains glycine. If you eat lots of animal protein, you'll need adequite glycine to balance out the methionine from meat. (See the article for more about methionine.)
  • Gelatin is good for your gut.
  • It helps improve joint health and reduce inflammation.
  • It promotes healthy skin and hair.
  • It helps you sleep.

When my kids were little, I made "healthy" jello from fruit juice, gelatin, and a little sugar. But even though I believed I was giving them a low-sugar treat, it wasn't as low-sugar as I thought because I failed to take into account the naturally occurring sugars in the fruit juice itself.

More recently I ran across a recipe for making "paleo" jello. It's made using pureed fruit, gelatin, and water. It's not too bad, but it's not really how gelatin was meant to be eaten. Gelatin is an animal by-product. It comes from the bones and connective tissue of animals.

If you want to add healthy gelatin to your diet, the best way to do it is to make bone broth. Simply simmer the bones from pasture-raised animals (beef, or chicken are my favorites) in a crock pot with a tablespoon or two of apple cider vinegar for 12 to 24 hours. Strain off the broth and discard the bones. The vinegar aids in pulling the minerals out of the bones, leaving you with a nutrient-dense collagen-rich super broth. I do this regularly and probably get more gelatin in my body these days than I ever used to. Bone broth can be added to soups and stews, and you can simmer your vegetables in it. It also makes great mashed potatoes if you're cooking for someone with dairy allergies. Simply boil the potatoes in bone broth until tender, pour off most of the broth, reserving a little in case it's needed. Then whip the potatoes with a few tablespoons of butter, and add the reserved broth if needed to get your desired consistency.

Another option is to add gelatin to your diet as a supplement. My favorite is Great Lakes brand unflavored gelatin. I add it to my coffee and it helps reduce the guilt of drinking something I know I should probably give up. (One day I will, I promise. I don't think there will be coffee in Heaven.) There is very little flavor to pure gelatin and the strong coffee taste completely masks it. Make sure you dissolve it in a little cold water first before adding the coffee or other hot liquid to your cup-- otherwise you'll get unpleasant lumps.

I never realized before how important gelatin is to joint health; and, unfortunately, it has become one of the many casualties of processed foods. Is it possible that one of the reasons so many people are suffering from arthritis in their fifties and sixties is that we are no longer cooking from scratch? All our soups are coming from a can and gelatin is nowhere to be found. Our meat is conveniently boneless and when we do consume meat on the bone, the bones end up in the dog's dish or the garbage instead of in a healthy broth.

Perhaps improving our overall health is as simple as returning to traditional cooking methods. It takes time and energy to cook like our grandparents did, but if the result is a better quality of life, maybe it's worth the effort.

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