Never let it be said that we here at Food Contact Surfaces shy away from facing the big issues of our modern, high-tech life. From milking cockroaches to camels, we have demonstrated fearlessness in tackling questions and bringing you up-to-date information on matters of interest large and small. So it was with our usual degree of dedication that we approached this week’s topic, a matter of critical significance both to our readers and to society at large. Gummy bears.
Wait? What was that? Yes, you read that right. Gummy bears: those ridiculously cute, highly addictive, chewy office and party favorites are the topic of today’s conversation. And for a couple of excellent reasons; one, they can be the candy equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing; and two, contrary to popular belief, they may not actually be as universally beloved as we initially thought. To wit, let us examine just one perspective…
An overlooked convenience of our movie-streaming, data downloading, instant gratification culture is the prevalence of online shopping product reviews. Never has it been so easy to research pros and cons of a potential purchase to get a sense of how others like, or otherwise, the product. And so it was that we stumbled across what has to be the funniest series of product reviews ever. May we present Exhibit A on the subject of purchasing these particular gummy bears: ‘These were developed in a government chemical lab in direct violation of United Nations Treaties against Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons. I sit here writing this review at 4AM from my porcelain throne, a fixture you will become all too familiar with if you chose to eat these cute little bears from the pits of hell.’(1)
We shall consider ourselves forewarned.
Their reliance upon an ingredient that begins its life in a wholly unsavory form – gelatin. In its most common manifestation, Jell-O, gelatin is a key constituent of a most beloved childhood dessert or hospital meal staple. Packed with artificial colors and flavors, potentially the only ingredient that’s even close to ‘natural’ in Jell-O is the gelatin that allows it to set into that wibbly-wobbly shape. And it is an ingredient commonly found in products as diverse as candy and ice-creams, cosmetics and shampoos, or vitamins and photographic film – in essence, anywhere a binder or gelling agent is required. So, with such apparently universal use, have you ever considered what it is made from? Where does this elasticity come from? How is it manufactured…and from what? The short, and wholly disagreeable, answer is scraps. The scraps of animal flesh and bones left over from the slaughter process.
Gelatin, a colloidal protein, is produced by the partial hydrolysis of bones and connective tissues sourced from slaughtered cattle, pigs, and horses. A nitrogenous compound, it melts in the presence of heat and reconnects when cool, boasts antimicrobial properties and, on a chemical level, it is amphoteric – reacting both as a base and as an acid. So how is it created? Interestingly there are two different processes that are commonly used in gelatin manufacture: acidic process and basic process.
In the first process, source materials are treated with acid to create ossein, the industry term for the collagen derived from demineralized bones. In temperatures ranging from 50° to 65°, the materials stew in a 4-6% hydrochloric acid concentration for up to 7 days to begin the hydrolysis of the collagen and to remove impurities. After the initial 7 days, the slurry may be treated with sodium hydroxide, an alkaline pre-treatment before being subjected to sulfuric acid for approximately 6 hours. After that time, materials are rinsed for up to 24 hours to achieve a pH reading of between 2.8 and 3.2.
In the second process, following the initial acidulation the source materials are treated in a process known as ‘liming.’ This is a more time-intensive way of creative gelatin insofar as it requires between 25 and 70 days for the liming process to complete. A temperature of between 50° and 70° must be maintained and the slurry is agitated daily to maintain the process before a 24- to 48-hour washing cycle can be initiated. Finally the mixture is treated with both sulfuric and hydrochloric acids to neutralize it to a pH of between 5 and 7.
Having reached this stage, both processes now run the same gamut of steps before the final product is ready for use, and at each step the potential for contamination is present. Any time that a matrix of animal protein begins its decomposition process, it is inevitable the spoilage can occur and this, of course, has impacts on product safety and public health. Following washing, the soupy material is parsed through a filtration system using a vertical leaf pressure filter coated with cellulose and diatomaceous earth. Next, the thin liquid is de-ionized with the removal of cations Ca2+, Mg2+, and Fe2+ and also the chloride and sulfate anions. A final filtration aims to remove any particulate or coagulated protein matter prior to a pH adjustment using sodium hydroxide. The gelatin is now a thick, viscous substance with a target concentration of between 25% and 50%. As such, care must be taken not to thin it out so the next step – sterilization using direct steam injection – requires the same processes used in pasteurization, High Temperature/Short Time, or HTST for short. At temperatures between 138° and 149° a steam injection burst of between 8 and 16 seconds is typically all that’s required to ensure microbiological purity of the product. Finally, using a glycol cooled heat exchanger and extruder, thick noodles of material are extruded and dried in a dehumidified environment before being ground into powder and blended for final packaging. From raw animal bones to packaged food-grade powder, this is the life cycle for gelatin manufacture.(2)
So what if there were an easier, potentially more palatable way of creating an ingredient for those all-important gummy bears and jelly beans? Fortunately for those who eschew animal products in their diets and lifestyles, there just may be. Let’s talk about Geltor…
Anyone who has ever eaten a vegan jelly bean or gummy bear will recognize that while the effort is appreciated by the animals, the experience is just not the same. Gone is the rewarding sensation of chewing on a resistant morsel that springs back defiantly on your tongue. Welcome instead to a smooshing, dissolving sweetness that is as orally unsatisfying as it is ethically noble. But acknowledging that the vegan alternatives for animal-based gelatins – agar agar, locust bean gum, pectin, and the like – just do not excite, Alex Lorestani and Nickolay Ouzounov, co-founders of Geltor, a start-up based in San Leandro, CA, aim to change the landscape for animal lovers with a penchant for truly chewy bear-shaped snacks.
And their technology will be disrupting a $3 billion business.
It’s as simple as fermentation and genetic manipulation. In vats that echo the beer brewing process, Geltor creates a feedstock that provides specially selected, top secret microbes with sugars, nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen. Leveraging the fact that collagen DNA has been thoroughly sequenced, Geltor engineers its micro-organisms to produce the protein and, excitingly, the company’s first set of engineered gelatin is from mastodon collagen – genetically sequenced from the now extinct animals. Moreover, given that they act as ‘self-replicating factories, specialized in converting nutrients into performance ingredients. These cells act with breathtaking efficiency, speed, and precision,’ Geltor believes vat fermentation is both sustainable and scalable.(3) In a Food Navigator article, Lorenstani revealed that he expects to be able to ‘deliver kilograms of product to customers […] and to be able to supply truly significant quantities such that big gelatin users could use Geltor’s product in their wares “in the next four years or so.”(4) (original emphasis)
All of this to create vegan gummy bears? No, not as such. Although a handful of consumers will be happy to see more players in the field of animal-free chewy candies, the bigger market may well be in nutraceuticals. According to an article in Medical News Today, gelatin may offer a slew of benefits from improved digestion and skin health to blood sugar regulation and weight loss.(5) Depending on the source materials it also offers significant amounts of valine, proline, and lysine, some of which are essential amino acids that are not created by the body itself. And if we’re looking at the nutraceutical market, we’re also looking closely at manufacturing processes.
Manufacturing dietary compounds should ideally be subject to the same stringent requirements as for pharmaceuticals or food items, and certainly the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does issue current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) guidelines with which producers should comply. In addition, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points protocols (HACCP) should be in place alongside excellent Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to protect the security of the product and the health of the consumer. And one company that seems to have a good framework in this area is NOW Foods, a player in the nutrition/health/beauty/supplement field for almost five decades. Following strict supply chain verification which includes documentation not only of the country of origin but also the site of processing/manufacture, raw materials delivered to NOW are inspected right at the receiving dock with black-light scanning equipment to detect otherwise invisible contaminants before samples are taken for additional analysis. Performing approximately 16000 tests monthly on ingredients and finished goods, NOW aims to keep the majority of its screening in-house to facilitate faster turn-around time while still maintaining quality assurance and performance. And cleanliness is critical. According to the company’s website: ‘We perform environmental testing to ensure proper air quality and to control cross-contamination. Manufacturing equipment is swabbed to check for contaminants and to ensure cleanliness. We perform a highly specialized ATP (adenosine triphosphate) sampler test that allows us to screen for allergens and microbes. Rooms that house manufacturing equipment are designed to control cross-contamination and are specially built to allow for comprehensive cleaning of ceilings, walls and floors.’(6) All of which is reassuring.
Given that source materials are derived from within a global market and that finished goods are returned to that arena, precautions such as strict compliance with cGMPs, excellence in SOPs, up-to-date HACCPs, and corporate diligence is the absolute minimum we should expect from those who profit from our custom. Even if we are only purchasing gummi bears…
Are you a bears fan? By that we mean a gummy bears! Favorite color or flavor? Let us know in the comments!