From its odd beginnings as the labor-intensive result of boiled meat bones, skins, and other animal byproducts, and as the 1950’s epitome of the modern housewife’s kitchen to its present-day rise as a symbol of culinary sophistication, gelatin has had a long history as a common thickener, stabilizer, binder, glaze, and a convenient source of protein.

Gelatin produced by hydrolysis of collagen which has been lauded by alternative health writers and shown in scientific studies to have benefits for hair, nails, skin, joints, and the digestive system. It is rumored to help improve cellulite, persistent subcutaneous fat causing dimpling of the skin, especially in women. A great source of dietary collagen, it helps tighten loose skin. Ingesting collagen is way more effective than any skin cream.

Alone it can be found in powder form or sheets, sweetened and colored or unsweetened and without flavor. It can also be commonly found in ready-to-eat foods, shampoos, face masks, marshmallows, frosted cereals, yogurt, gummy candies, cakes, puddings, cosmetics, and even some medications and types of film coatings. Commonly available gelatin is mostly derived from pork, and even if it isn’t, it is usually not halal because only gelatin made from the bones and hides of halal slaughtered animals is halal. Gelatin from fish is however halal. IFANCA has certified authentic halal bovine gelatin, derived from halal slaughtered animals. Gelatins from different sources have different properties, hence each kind is appropriate for a different application.

Gelatin in cosmetics can be avoided by using vegan beauty products but those too may contain ingredients that could be questionable to the halal consumer such as alcohol. Lip color can be ingested by the wearer, and according to studies, on average, 4 to 9 pounds of lipstick are “consumed” by women in their lifetimes.

IFANCA certified Amara Halal Cosmetics, based in Los Angeles, CA is one brand of color cosmetics that bears the distinction of being the first to be halal certified and completely free from gelatin. “I was looking for organizations to see what the regulations would be as far as getting a product certified,” Shamalia Mohamed, the founder of Amara, recalls about the creation of her line. “So I contacted a few different organizations, then I came across IFANCA. They were wonderful to guide me as far as…what a product needs to be certified halal. Then I worked with my chemist and we formulated.” The Amara Halal Cosmetics line was initially met with a bit of skepticism. According to Mohamed, there were even some who wondered if the use of the word halal to describe cosmetics was a sales gimmick. She says, “In the beginning, it was definitely very, very challenging and still is. It’s now finally being recognized that there is such a thing as (halal cosmetics) and what we use as mainstream products are definitely not feasible for [Muslim consumers].” Mohamed feels her products are attractive to consumers from other demographic groups as well, who appreciate the line’s focus on organic, natural, vegan, and vegetarian ingredients.

Chef John Umlauf, senior VP for culinary operations for Saffron Road Foods, an American manufacturer of certified halal foods, said his company finds creative ways to thicken their food products while avoiding the use of added gelatin. “For sure, gelatin is extremely relevant to the halal consumer, since gelatin is usually derived from animal sources and, to be halal, all animal products need to be derived from animals which have been harvested in the traditional zabihah manner. In all of our products, there is no added gelatin of any kind. Our chicken broths are made from only zabihah halal chicken bones, a natural source of halal gelatin. When our sauces need thickening, we often puree them to increase the smoothness of the onions and vegetables in the sauce, or add a small amount of native corn starch or xanthan gum (derived by fermentation). We also find that adding traditional, wholesome ingredients like coconut milk, cream or yogurt adds pleasing body to a sauce and reduces the amount of other thickeners needed,” Umlauf says.

How do you spot gelatin and its related products on a product label? In medications, gelatin is commonly used in capsules that coat liquid medications, powdered medications, or vitamins. Some of the words to watch out for, that describe gelatin in food, medication, and personal care product labels are: collagen hydrolysate, collagen dénaturé, collagène hydrolysé, collagène marin hydrolysé, denatured collagen, gelatina, gélatine, gélatine hydrolysée, hydrolysed collagen, hydrolyzed collagen protein, hydrolyzed gelatin, marine collagen hydrolysate, and protéine de collagène hydrolysé.

The need for alternatives with the same binding properties that gelatin delivers has prompted one Silicon Valley startup from San Leandro called Geltor, to develop a vegan alternative to gelatin using genetically engineered microbes. It hasn’t yet hit the market as such products must first be approved by the US FDA. “Vegetarian ingredients,” Geltor’s CEO, Alexander Lorestani points out, “do a good job at imitating gelatin but are far from the real thing when it comes to consistency.”

The good news is that today there are myriad vegetarian and vegan gelatin alternatives such as agar agar, konjac, guar gum, carrageenan, lecithin, xanthan gum, gum arabic, tapioca, pectin, and locust bean gum. However according to Dr. Mian Riaz, Graduate Faculty, Nutrition and Food Science Department at Texas A&M University, agar agar, carrageenan, guar gum, locust bean gum, and konjac are not comparable to gelatin. “To some extent they can be substituted in a few foods, but you would not be able to make good quality capsules, and marshmallows. They are more difficult to incorporate with foods because of their gelling characteristics and some may have an off flavor,” he says.

Carrageenan, extracted from a red seaweed, does not have the nutritional value of gelatin, when used as a thickener and emulsifier to improve the texture of food (often found in ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, soy milk, and other processed foods.) There have also been some reports of it causing gastrointestinal problems, but Dr. Riaz maintains that, “If used in very small amounts (as a food additive), it does not create any major health issues.”

As consumers continue to become more educated about the source of their foods and cosmetics, they will continue to demand these alternatives. While it is always important to read product labels, don’t hesitate to reach out to a company representative if you don’t find the answers you need.

Christine Escobar is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She is the founder and editor of Green Parent Chicago.