We Won’t Approve Most Kosher Collagen (or Gelatin). Yes, Even When it Says it’s Kosher.
You asked, and we delivered. One of the most common questions we get from companies looking to get kosher certified is why we don’t approve certain ingredients. Even when they have kosher certification. And perhaps you’ve found yourself here on the quest for why an un-trademarked letter K on those collagen peptides doesn’t make it kosher ‘enough.’ Or why all the Hebrew letters in a decorative emblem on that hydrolyzed collagen you’re using don’t satisfy us.
If so, you’ve come to the right place.
First off, if you missed our in-depth interview post on ingredient review in kosher certification onboarding, do check it out for how we go through each and every raw material.
But for specifically what makes some collagen more fit than others, look no further than right here.
What is Collagen?
In case you’re not quite at the stage getting your ingredients approved, you may be wondering – What exactly is collagen? Collagen is the most abundant essential protein in your body. It’s present in the cartilage, bones and skin. By definition, an essential protein (or any essential substance) is something your body needs in order to thrive, but can’t produce on its own without help. In other words, you need to get it from your diet or environment. While it’s possible to synthesize collagen in your body as a result of eating some amino-acid-rich foods, you can only add collagen to your body by consuming it whole (vegans, stay tuned).
What are the benefits of collagen?
These proteins may do some really nice things for the human body. Some of collagen’s purported health benefits include slowing the aging process in skin, nails and hair, reducing inflammation, plus preventing bone and joint disease and pain. It does this through hydration because collagen is a humectant. That means it binds water to the cells, preventing wrinkles and dryness, contributing to a youthful-looking effect. While, according to a publication from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, taking collagen supplements or eating foods that contain collagen may serve no different purpose than consuming any other type of protein, there’s certainly room to consider it a healthy food ingredient regardless.
It’s no wonder companies jump through hoops like the process you’ll read about soon. But before we move on, there are a couple more basics to cover. Building blocks, if you will.
What are Collagen Peptides?
Either as a consumer or food industry professional, you’ll hear several other words accompanying the term collagen. A popular one is peptides. What are peptides, you may be wondering? Recall elementary school science class for a minute. You learned that protein, an essential nutrient, consists of little building blocks called amino acids. When strung together, amino acids form peptides. Get the right combination and length of peptide strands together, and you have proteins. Simply put, collagen peptides are small pieces of the collagen protein.
Where did collagen supplements come from?
Collagen peptides, often sold as powdered supplements, are a popular product in the health and wellness space. They’re a common ingredient in functional foods, drink mixes and even coffee and powdered creamer. They’re also popular in beauty applications like creams, lotions and other skin treatments to hydrate from the outside-in.
But before manufactured supplements were ever a thing, many cultures consumed collagen via bone broths and meat or fish stews since time immemorial (Jewish Penicillin, anyone?). Most common in the manufacturing world are bovine (beef), porcine (pork) and marine (fish) varieties. Collagen is extracted from the bones, skin and connective tissue in the boiling process, forming gelatin – the cooked form of collagen. This results in a slightly different chemical structure, suitable for different applications.
But in order to extract collagen on the manufacturing level for mass use, it’s a whole different process than chicken soup. Especially if it’s going to be kosher. So let’s take a deeper dive into that process, and why it’s important.
Why is OK Kosher so strict about accepting collagen and gelatin?
Companies in nearly every sector come to OK Kosher for the most recognized kosher certification programs in the world. And when we hear from those looking for kosher collagen or gelatin recommendations, we share only a select list of suppliers. We recommend only those whose kosher process we either approve or conduct ourselves. But what’s so hard about producing kosher collagen?
The production process itself takes many intricate steps, additional staff, and an involved system for tracking every aspect. Which unfortunately leaves opportunity for manufacturers, and even other certifiers, to take leniencies in kosher law. Some of those leniencies carry hefty consequences. The OK Kosher Executive Rabbinical Council, who are leaders in the field of kosher law, dictate these standards. In addition, kosher collagen production includes many intricate steps. Any of them are sensitive enough to potentially jeopardize the entire production. That would potentially cause massive waste and monetary loss.
Then is that unapproved collagen still kosher on some level? As you’ll often hear in Kosher Law: it’s not so simple. But suffice to say, that if we don’t accept it, you probably don’t want it. It sounds harsh, but with a motto like Kosher Without Compromise, we won’t leave any room for mediocrity. We’d rather certify a very few, high-level products than an array of sub-par ones.
So let’s discuss the complexity of kosher collagen manufacturing.
How is kosher collagen made?
As in the old days, collagen is still extracted from animal bones, skins and connective tissues using water. But in manufacturing, the process is much more complex.
The first and most crucial step from a kosher perspective is to ensure that only kosher animal hides are used. An essential part of any kosher meat production process is to check each animal manually. The inspector (called a bodek in Hebrew) will look for any lesions or signs of illness that would disqualify it. This is an internal procedure performed after slaughtering the animal (called shechita, in Hebrew). Standard practice in the industry is to slaughter in steady succession, while a mechanical process carries the hides to outside storage. If any hides will be used for kosher collagen, a tagging system matches them with the animal they came from. This allows the kosher representative to identify the kosher hides and set them aside after the manual inspection.
What happens after that? The intensely detailed process is beyond the scope of this post. However, here’s a basic breakdown of how kosher bovine collagen is made.
The Steps in manufacturing kosher bovine collagen:
- Identification, tagging and separation of the kosher hides from the non-kosher ones.
- Cleaning to soften the skins.
- Excess hair removal.
- Acid treatment to open up the sinew.
- (For gelatin) hot water treatment.
- Centrifuge run.
- Two levels of filtration.
- Evaporation & Sterilization.
- Cooling. The product at this point comes out in long, wet noodle shapes.
- Drying and breaking down the noodles into regular-sized particles resembling dry pasta, ready for bulk packaging.
We know, that was a lot. Or perhaps the long-winded procedure doesn’t surprise you or answer the following question:
Why is kosher collagen so expensive?
There’s one reason most manufacturers looking for kosher collagen or gelatin ingredients give up or settle for a lesser certification. That is because truly kosher collagen is expensive. It may seem easy enough to organize for slaughterhouses to reserve beef hides for collagen production. Further, one might think it’s a great way to use up an otherwise throw-away product. But it gets tricky.
Firstly, the tagging and separation mentioned above requires more staff and kosher representatives than usual, even for a kosher slaughterhouse. This fact alone adds to the overall cost. However, consider how many (or how few) of those hides will actually be declared kosher. We have to factor for the ones which came from blemished animals, that won’t qualify. Furthermore, cheaper parts of the animal often used to make non-kosher collagen (such as cartilage and bones) won’t be used. Tracking those parts would become far too complicated for kosher production. Which adds yet another factor to the price.
What’s more, each and every step mentioned above requires all equipment and chemicals to be under rabbinical supervision. The process also may not share equipment with non-kosher collagen production. The price of certain equipment parts can sometimes almost negate the value of kosher bovine collagen altogether.
Which leads to a natural question.
Does kosher collagen only come from kosher animals?
Or asked differently, can you use non-kosher animals to make kosher collagen? It’s a common question, because the notion does indeed exist. Unfortunately, however, it’s a point of diversion between the major kosher certifiers and the less-often-accepted ones. You see, there is a minority opinion in Kosher Law that considers collagen kosher even from a non-kosher animal.
This is based on a specific principle in Kosher Law. A product that’s been ultra-processed from the original raw material is considered a ‘new entity’. It therefore loses its meat status according to kosher. To be clear, even this minority opinion is based on a well-respected source of yesteryear. But the leading contemporary authorities cite the stark difference between collagen production methods during those times versus today. Collagen extraction for commercial use would previously take around six months from start to finish. Nowadays, the process can be complete within days.
Without getting further into that debate here, we’ll just make OK Kosher’s position clear, if it isn’t already. That is, kosher collagen can only come from kosher animals. This means both a kosher species of animal, and one that was slaughtered in accordance with kosher law. (The exception to that later point is fish, which we’ll discuss). Therefore, a kosher slaughterhouse with proper kosher supervision must be enlisted for the task.
How hard is it to obtain kosher hides for collagen?
Even if the above can be accomplished, some other details require heavy coordination, usually through a broker. For instance, the vast majority of cow hides left from slaughterhouses are already earmarked for car companies making leather interiors. So an important first step is to find a kosher slaughterhouse. Then they must be willing to kick back a few skins for your collagen run. Just how many skins are a few? Depending on several factors, the ratio is anywhere from 5:1 to 10:1 kilos of animal hides to collagen or gelatin produced. That’s not even to mention the “bloom” factor, the industry term for the product’s potency. Depending on the final application (such as gummies vs. supplement capsules), buyers will request different levels of bloom. This also factors into the final product’s price.
How sustainable is kosher collagen production?
Different types of raw material will produce varying yield of collagen, as well. For that, several factors come into play, such as what animal was used. But taking the example of bovine collagen, it takes a five-digit number of cowhides to produce a three-digit number of tons of collagen or gelatin. For reference, a typical production run involves a few hundred slaughters per day. Keep in mind, again, that not all of those animals will come up kosher after slaughter and inspection.
Now you can understand why we deal with collagen primarily in the context of approving or disapproving it as an ingredient in certified products. But there are very few collagen manufacturers we actually certify. Does that answer the question of whether it’s sustainable to produce kosher collagen, certified to a high and accepted standard? We won’t answer for the manufacturers themselves. But consider how few reliably kosher bovine collagen suppliers there are (that we accept), and you may have your answer.
Do consumers care whether collagen is kosher?
Put differently, does collagen need to be kosher? We can’t stress enough how important this is to the end consumer. Kosher consumers know who the major certifiers are and the high bar we set. Further, many kosher consumers also know of the complications involved in approving kosher collagen, if not the details of producing it. Most kosher consumers simply will not buy a product with an un-trademarked, or unfamiliar kosher certification. Especially with collagen, it’s simply too risky to them.
So what options do companies seeking kosher collagen have remaining?
What about kosher marine collagen and fish gelatin?
There are several reasons companies consider producing or using fish gelatin or collagen over bovine. A possible perceived benefit is that kosher species of fish are Pareve. That means consumers won’t feel the need to consider whether they’re eating dairy at the same time as taking their vitamins or eating other products made with marine collagen or fish gelatin. OK Kosher certifies several fish collagen and fish gelatin products, and keeps adding more.
But guess what. Get ready for it…
Bovine collagen is also Pareve.
Confused further? Truth be told, it’s not that complicated. There are a couple of reasons for this in kosher law. Primarily, it’s because collagen is extracted from parts of the animal that are considered non-edible, as opposed to the muscle, which is commonly eaten. Secondly, similar to the above, a severely denatured component of meat is just no longer considered meat for our purposes. It’s considered a new entity. Again, the misconception that bovine collagen is anything but Pareve may not be so common. But it remains a minor consideration (plus we thought you might like to know about it).
Then, what other reasons might there be to opt for marine or fish collagen?
In contrast to cows, fish don’t require special slaughtering according to kosher law. Kosher fish species retain their kosher status regardless of the harvesting method. The most common fish used for collagen is tilapia. Frozen blocks of tilapia skin supplied by fisheries are thawed under the supervision of an experienced kosher field rabbi. He’ll inspect each skin for the right markers of a kosher fish, and ascertain that only kosher species are present. Further, the companies that supply the fish skins are often the same ones producing the collagen themselves. That eliminates a tremendous amount of middleman work. So overall, marine collagen production poses a far less expensive and less daunting option. But—
Bovine collagen reigns most popular – for now, anyway.
There are factors that keep bovine the most popular type of collagen in the general market.
For one, bovine collagen is considered superior to that of fish for quality, potency and usability. Additionally, fish is a common allergen, which cuts out an entire slice of the target consumer set. Further to that, although fish collagen is also Pareve…bear will me…there is a contingent of kosher-observant folks who won’t consume fish with dairy. This complicates making cheesecake with fish gelatin, for some. And, it is generally against Torah law for kosher-observant folks to consume fish with meat. (Though that’s not as strictly so as the required separation between meat and dairy). You can imagine the possible scenarios where this consideration may come up.
We’ll give you a moment to untangle your mind for a second. There. And it makes one wonder. Can we get around all of this? Perhaps there is something a bit less complicated.
Plant Based or Vegan Alternatives to Collagen and Gelatin
You guessed it. There are completely plant-based, or vegan, alternatives to collagen and gelatin. We don’t need to explain the appeal of plant-based products here (but we have done so before, here).
What is vegan collagen?
Food scientists have indeed found a way to produce genetically engineered collagen from either yeast, or the bacteria P. pastoris. Pepsin, a digestive enzyme, gets added to help structure the building blocks into collagen molecules with the exact structure of human collagen. There are many nutritional and practical pros to these forms of collagen, so they hold a lot of promise for the future. But for now, unfortunately, they’re fairly new and not easily available.
What are the best plant-based collagen and gelatin alternatives?
Luckily, we know of several naturally-occurring plant-based products that act like collagen and gelatin as ingredients. They’re increasingly common in applications like gummies, jam, marshmallows, sauces and more.
Here’s a shortlist, complete with links to the OK Kosher product search for some that we currently certify:
- Agar-Agar, or Kanten (a seaweed).
- Pectin (extracted from fruit peels, like apple and citrus).
- Carrageenan (made from a seaweed called Irish Moss).
- Xanthan Gum (a byproduct of fermenting various carbohydrate sources).
- Guar Gum (made from guar beans).
- Konjac, or konjak (a starchy, tuber-like herb).
Benefits of Vegan Collagen and Collagen Alternatives
Opting for animal-free collagen or vegan collagen alternatives like those mentioned above can have several benefits. We spoke a bit already about the expense and difficulty of setting up a viable kosher collagen or gelatin production. Other than sustainability and cost, the non-animal options pose fewer health risks. Yes, any animal product manufacturing carries the possibility of transmitting animal-borne illness.
Safety First in Kosher Collagen Production.
We’ll interject here to say that adding kosher certification to the equation in any case significantly lessens health risks in the final product. It’s evidenced by the fact that kosher meat processing hasn’t been hit with nearly as much public health controversy as that of non-kosher. An extra pair of impartial eyes never seems to hurt in food safety. Besides, we care just as much about the health and safety of consumers as we do about providing them with kosher options.
That said, vegan collagen production happens in a more controlled environment than animal collagen, which lessens the need for concern. In addition, vegan options circumvent the allergen consideration that fish poses. Plus it goes without saying that the environmental and animal welfare concerns around bovine production are a non-issue with these products.
Should you use kosher collagen?
We’ve covered a lot here about the types and benefits of kosher collagen and their alternatives. As to whether your company should opt for a kosher collagen or alternative is up to you. Regardless of whether it be meat-, fish- or plant-based, using a known, reliable kosher certification is a wise choice. That’s the case for almost any end product that’s eligible. Do your research about the options, take note of your customers’ needs, and decide what’s best for your company.