Why are starbursts, marshmallows and jellies not vegan? This seemingly innocent product contains gelatin. The use of these ingredients means that these foods and others are not only unsuitable for vegans, but also prohibited for vegetarians. No, there is no meat hidden in marshmallows, but there are less appetizing animal parts hidden in gelatin, a common ingredient in marshmallows. There is a long process between the pip and the animal to make it, but the unfortunate truth is that many foods still rely on gelatin to achieve their specific texture. Here’s what you need to know about gelatin and five plant-based alternatives to satisfy all your sweet cravings.
What is gelatin?
In its purest form, gelatin is a clear, tasteless protein made from animal collagen. Commonly obtained from cows and pigs, collagen is a substance that makes up cartilage, skin, and bones. Basically, it helps hold the body together. This feature also applies to food. Gelatin is often used to thicken or solidify liquids or semi-liquids to achieve a certain texture. Chewy gummies, squishy marshmallows, tangy fruit candies and quick pastry creams all rely on gelatin for texture. Pure gelatin comes in both sheet and powder form. Both must be activated by dissolving in warm liquid then allowing to cool to set. If you’re a fan of non-vegan baking shows, you’ve probably seen contestants dunk sheets of gelatin in hot water or frantically whip gelatin powder over the stove. Just like dino-shaped nuggets, gelatin’s seamless, transparent appearance makes people forget that this substance is pure animal parts—parts most don’t consider eating (mm, tendon?).
What foods contain gelatin?
There are vegan exceptions or just accidental vegan-friendly one-offs, but gelatin is often found in gummies (with sticky vitamins), marshmallows, candy corn, panna cottas, fruit snacks, and some pastry creams, including Bavarian cream, pudding, custard. , and mousses. Not to state the obvious, but Jell-O is basically flavored and sweetened gelatin. Although not very common, gelatin can also be used in some ice cream recipes (it acts as a stabilizer). Common brands that use gelatin include frosted cereals such as Jet-Puffed, Pips, Altoids, Starburst, Jell-O, Lifesavers, Haribo, Trolley, Frosted Pop-Tarts, Rice Krispie Treats, and Frosted Mini-Wheat. Unless a package clearly claims “plant-based” or “vegan,” it’s always recommended to check the ingredients label for any product that’s squishy, sticky, or jiggly in texture.
Plant-based gelatin alternatives
Animal-based gelatin isn’t the only thing that can make a candy glue or set a pastry cream into a thick and velvety pudding. Both cornstarch and agar agar (an algae-based product found in the seaweed section) have been used to successfully replicate these complex textures. Like gelatin, both cornstarch and agar agar activate when combined with hot liquids. Cornstarch will thicken a liquid in minutes, and agar agar can set similarly quickly and at room temperature.
Cornstarch works as a perfect substitute for gelatin when whipping up something creamy like pastry cream, pudding or cheesecake. Typically, one tablespoon of cornstarch is used per cup of liquid. Again, this mixture must be heated to activate the thickening properties of cornstarch. Agar agar is a more universal alternative to gelatin, but err on the side of less is more. You will only need one-third to one-half the amount of agar agar to replace the gelatin. Too much of this algae, and you’ll end up with a very hard dessert.
Food-tech companies are also working on animal-free gelatin products. Geltor—a Silicon Valley startup founded in 2015—is leading the charge to develop vegan proteins that replicate the qualities of animal materials like collagen and gelatin. In 2020, the company raised $91 million to fund this effort and now offers four solutions for commercial use in cosmetics, skin care and food.
Plant-based marshmallows, gummies and more
Making your own vegan marshmallows can be a fun weekend project, but most can’t do the job whenever the urge calls. Here are a few standout brands that make our favorite gelatin-free products.
Dandy’s made vegan bonfire dreams come true when it launched its first vegan marshmallow in 2010. The original puffy treats are still a staple, but the company has expanded the line of confections to include mini marshmallows and flavored seasonal varieties like pumpkin, peppermint and the like. Maple Trader Joe’s brand-name marshmallows are also accidentally vegan. Craving rice crispy treats? Check out Good & Blake’s Seed-Based Recipes for this conveniently packaged sweet treat.
2 gummy candy
The good news is that Swedish fish is accidentally vegan. However, most bears, worms and other sticky animals are not. Surf Sweets Vegan Fruity fills the void of gummy bears and rings, and YumEarth Starburst-esque will satisfy any craving for fruit chews. Sour candy lovers, be sure to check out SmartSweets for its Sourmelon Bite and Sour Blast Buddies.
3 glutinous vitamins
No matter how old you are, you’re never too old to take your vitamins. If these concentrated bites come in gummy form instead of pill form, no one is here to judge. Vitamin Friends makes nutrient-specific vitamins for kids and adults alike, including strawberry jam, cola and mystery flavors. Popping a few doesn’t excuse you from eating iron-rich foods, but a tasty little boost of glutinous iron can’t hurt.
Simply Delish is the most accessible stand-in for the iconic Jell-O brand. The vegan company offers instant puddings and Jell-O desserts that will remind you of the simple sweets you ate growing up. Go ahead and have a bowl of chocolate pudding or a slushy bit of plant-based Jell-O—your nostalgic side is waiting for it.
Most Pop-Tart flavors are not vegetarian-friendly. The stiff icing on top of most of these convenient toaster pastries contains gelatin. However, three old-school varieties—unfrosted brown sugar cinnamon, strawberry and blueberry—are animal-free. Bobo’s offers a variety of vegan toaster pastries including strawberry jam, cinnamon brown sugar, apple pie and raspberry. Unfortunately, none of these options are frosted. For the real-deal Pop-Tarts experience, make your own using this recipe.