Gelatine and collagen: authenticity concerns

When it comes to food fraud, gelatine and collagen are not usually ingredients that first come to mind. However, compromised authenticity of these products can create major ethical concerns.

As gelatine and collagen are widely used in food, cosmetic and pharma products, acts of adulteration or mislabelling can have far-reaching effects and ultimately threaten a brand’s integrity, advises FACTS SA, the Stellenbosch-based food and allergy testing and consulting company.

A step back: What is the difference between gelatine, collagen and hydrolysed collagen?

Both gelatine and hydrolysed collagen (also known as ‘collagen peptides’) are derived from fibrous insoluble collagen that is extracted from the skin, bones, hide and/or connective tissues of mammals, birds or fish.

Collagen is the most abundant structural protein in mammals. Collagen in its native form is insoluble in water and consists of three long chains of amino acids wound together in a triple helix.

Gelatine is made from collagen that has been partially denatured by thermal or enzymatic processes into chains of amino acids known as polypeptides. Gelatine is soluble in hot water and has the ability to form gels, which makes it a useful emulsifying, thickening, and clarifying agent in a variety of products.

Hydrolysed collagen is made from collagen that has been hydrolysed or broken down into short amino acids known as peptides. Hydrolysed collagen is soluble in hot or cold water, and does not have gelling properties.

What are the main sources of gelatine?

According to a 2012 report from the Gelatin Manufacturers Institute of America, pork skin is the main source of gelatine (46%), followed by bovine hides (29.4%) and bovine bones (23.1%). The Gelatin Manufacturers of Europe report that approximately 80% of the edible gelatine produced in Europe is made from pork skins.

There is limited information on the main sources of hydrolysed collagen, but it is expected to be similar to that of gelatine.

What types of fraud are applicable to gelatine and hydrolysed collagen?

According to the Decernis Food Fraud database, gelatine of a particular source may be diluted or substituted with gelatine of another source or the species/source origin may be mislabelled. Similar types of fraud are expected for hydrolysed collagen.

The intentional misrepresentation or deliberate blending of products from different species is highly relevant for consumers with ethical concerns for or other aversions to consuming particular species.

For example, people of Muslim or Jewish faiths are prohibited from consuming porcine products, while the consumption of bovine products is prohibited in Hinduism. Thus, misrepresentation of the source of gelatine or hydrolysed collagen-containing products can have a major impact on these consumer groups.

How common is gelatine and hydrolysed collagen fraud?

The true scale of fraud relating to these products is not clear. It seems likely that most cases of fraud are undetected, primarily due to a lack of surveillance and a historical limitation in access to appropriate, accurate and readily available test methods.

As advancements are made in the analytical scientific community and as these test methods become more widely available, the magnitude of the issue will become clearer.

What test methods are available to validate gelatine and hydrolysed collagen authenticity?

Historically, and due to commercial availability, ELISA and/or PCR have been the methods of choice for detecting fraud in gelatine and hydrolysed collagen samples. However, these techniques are not always suitable for these sample types. During collagen processing, DNA is often degraded and there is a loss of protein structure.

In recent years, targeted proteomics-based methods have been demonstrated as valuable for investigating the authenticity of gelatine and hydrolysed collagen. Targeted proteomics detects characteristic peptides comprising these products, so the challenge of protein specificity and a loss of protein structure as a result of processing is not relevant.

Are there plant-based alternatives?

Hydrocolloids can be extracted from plant sources and used as a gelling agents in food products. These plant-based alternatives are sometimes referred to as ‘veggie gelatine’, and may be derived from agar, carrageenan, pectin, xanthan gum, modified corn starch or celluloid.

However, it remains difficult for plant-based alternatives to compete with mammalian-based gelatine, especially from rapid breeding animals such pigs. Mammalian-based gelatine production is fast and cheap.

What about fish?

Another alternative is fish gelatine and fish (or ‘marine’) hydrolysed collagen. Fish gelatine appears to be a promising alternative to mammalian gelatine, as its technical functionality generally compares well to that of mammalian gelatine (depending on the species, the type of raw material and the processing conditions).

The raw materials needed to produce fish gelatine and marine hydrolysed collagen are also widely available due to the abundant mass production of fish by-products worldwide.

Analytical testing is a valuable tool for assessing the authenticity of food products, ingredients and additives. Performing this type of investigation early in the processing cycle can provide valuable information to the producer to enable timely corrective measures to be actioned, should an adulterated or fraudulent ingredient be detected.

Source: FACTS SA: If you are interested in testing your products for gelatine or collagen authenticity, please contact FACTS SA here.

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