The fruit, jiggly treat known as jello has been popular in the United States, in some form or another, for centuries. From the jelly molds of the Victorian era to the jello “salads” of the 1950s to a plastic container of what we now may consider hospital food, jello has played a unique role in American pop culture. But, what exactly is the gelatinous substance? The snack begins as a liquid, gels into a solid, yet is somehow still eaten with just a slurp. This is all due to jello’s main ingredient, gelatin.
Gelatin is the primary source of jello’s wiggly nature. A colorless, flavorless food product made from collagen extracted from bones and animal tissues, gelatin is dehydrated and powdered before it’s turned into jello. Originally sold only in sheets that needed to be soaked in water, the gelatin most commonly sold (and used in jello) today is powdered. It’s also used to create the chewy factor in marshmallows and gummies, as well as to encourage smoothness and thickening of some brands of yogurt and ice cream.
While there are several companies that produce jello, the most popular is Kraft, which owns the brand “Jell-O”. Their strawberry flavor contains the following ingredients: sugar, gelatin, adipic acid—“(for tartness)”, says the website. It’s the same product used to make fizzy drinks bubble, and for tartness in fruit juice. Jell-O also contains “less than 2 percent of” disodium phosphate and sodium citrate (both sodium salts) to “control acidity,” fumaric acid “for tartness,” artificial flavor, and Red 40 (the most widely-used food dye, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest; it’s considered by some groups to be unsafe for children).
In 2016, Kraft launched “Jell-O Simply Good,” jello mixes made from natural ingredients. The strawberry flavor is made with cane sugar instead of bleached sugar, dried strawberry juice, turmeric and vegetable juice instead of Red 40, and natural flavor instead of artificial. The remaining ingredients are the same as classic Jell-O, although Simply Good contains “less than 1 percent” of those additives as opposed to less than 2.
While most commercially sold jello is neither vegetarian nor vegan, vegan jello actually does exist. Simply Delish makes their jello with carrageenan (a gelling agent made from seaweed often used in nondairy goods that can pose harmful gastrointestinal effects), as well as erythritol (a sugar alcohol), citric acid, potassium citrate, natural color, and stevia extract. Bakol is another plant-based jello made with vegetable gum (though the ingredient list does not detail which type of vegetable gum used), evaporated cane juice, adipic acid, potassium citrate, natural flavor, and beet powder for color. To avoid any contact with carrageenan, you can also make plant-based jello yourself using agar-agar powder or flakes, a gelling substance made from algae.