Most people are familiar with the jelly-like properties of gelatin. It’s a key ingredient in jello, jam, and even gummy candies.
It’s also starting to make a name for itself as a way to increase collagen in your diet, as a health supplement.
Agar, also known as agar-agar, is less known, but becoming more popular, especially in vegan cuisine. It’s currently the most popular plant-based substitution for gelatin on the market.
So what’s the difference between agar and gelatin? Agar is a gelling agent made from red algae, while gelatin is collagen sourced from animal hides and bone marrow. Agar has almost no nutritional value, save for fiber, while gelatin is a significant source of collagen.
In this article we’ll look closely at just what agar and gelatin are, how they’re each used, and how they’re different from each other.
What Is Agar?
Agar is a jelly-like substance extracted from red algae. The name, agar-agar, actually means “jelly” in Malay.
In Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries, agar has been used to create jellies for eating for centuries.
In the west, we’re a bit behind. It has been used for a few hundred years in scientific applications such as microbiological testing and electrochemistry, but only in more recent decades have we started cooking with it.
Agar can be found either in powdered form or in strips. The powder is much more commonly used in kitchens, so unless you’re working in a chemistry lab, try to stay away from the strips.
In cooking, agar can be used in a variety of ways. It makes a near-perfect substitution for gelatin in any recipe, and it’s a useful thickening agent in soups, jams, preserves, and desserts like ice cream.
It also makes a great vegan-friendly binding agent, which can replace eggs or dairy in a variety of recipes.
Depending on how it’s put to use, it can even be an emulsifier and/or stabilizer.
To activate the jelly-like properties, you simply have to boil the powder. This is one of the biggest differences in using agar to substitute for gelatin.
Gelatin will turn to jelly simply in the presence of warm liquid, but agar must come to a full boil for at least 1–2 minutes.
If you’re using agar in a milk or cream base, make sure you’re actively watching your pot during the boiling process because you need a roiling boil, not just a simmer, and you don’t want the milk to boil over.
Another difference between gelatin and agar is the texture once it sets. Gelatin melts at a lower temperature, leaving a smooth, velvety texture. Agar requires more heat to melt, so it has a more chewy, gummy texture.
It’s also slightly more cloudy than pure gelatin.
Agar Nutrition Content
Agar is most easily found in health food stores or the healthy food section of your grocery store, and it’s vegan, which leads most people to the conclusion that it’s a healthy food.
This isn’t untrue, but the benefits are limited.
It’s free from almost everything except fiber. There are virtually no calories, carbs, sugars, or fat. You won’t find any soy, wheat, milk, eggs, or starch in agar. It doesn’t even need preservatives to stay fresh.
The fiber in agar is the biggest benefit when it comes to health and nutrition. It’s highly absorbent. While it passes through your digestive system, it will collect water and glucose, saving you from retaining water weight or storing sugar as fat.
It does this in very small quantities, however, so don’t use agar in all your baking thinking it will completely negate the consequences of a sugar rush.
What Is Gelatin?
Gelatin is made simply by cooking collagen. Collagen is one of the proteins that make up every cell in our body.
For many years, it’s been promoted through the cosmetics industry as being important to keep your skin and hair looking young, as it helps maintain elasticity and prevent loose skin and wrinkles.
Gelatin is made by boiling by-products such as skin, tendons, ligaments, and bones of animals, usually pigs or cows.
It’s one product that you would do well to invest in because the price difference is negligible, but the health benefits can be significant.
We like the pasture-raised, grass-fed, non-GMO beef gelatin from Vital Proteins. They’re also tested to be hormone, pesticide, and antibiotic-free.
Gelatin specifically has been used in cooking for generations as a thickening and/or binding agent. It’s completely flavorless, odorless, and colorless, but it’s what gives candies and jams their gummy, jelly-like texture.
Compared to agar, it’s used most commonly in desserts or sweet recipes and it can be substituted in either direction gram for gram.
This ratio is somewhat controversial, however, because agar sets up quite a bit more firmly than gelatin does.
If you’re looking for a melt-in-your-mouth experience, you may want to reduce the conversion to use half as much agar as gelatin.
Gelatin Nutrition Content
When it comes to health benefits and requirements, collagen is something that everyone needs. Since gelatin is just a cooked version of collagen, they’re used interchangeably in this section.
It is absolutely beneficial for glowing, youthful hair, skin, and nails, but it isn’t just about superficial benefits.
Collagen, and therefore gelatin, is a key source of protein that can be used to build muscles, enhance joint health, and even boost your brainpower.
For anyone following a low-protein diet, collagen is one of the best sources of protein for muscle growth and recovery.
1-10% of all muscle mass is comprised of collagen, so including gelatin in your diet is a good way to help keep this muscle healthy, even if you’re not working out hard.
This is all thanks to the arginine and lysine content, which is just as significant in gelatin as it is in collagen supplements and helps to boost the natural production of creatine.
Collagen also supports joint health, reducing the effects of inflammation. It can also help restore and rebuild cartilage damaged through normal wear and tear.
How Can Vegans Get Collagen in Their Diet?
Agar might be a good substitute for gelatin in a variety of baking and cooking applications, but it does not have the same nutritional benefits.
Gelatin, being derived from animal skin and bones, is not suitable for vegans, but that doesn’t make collagen any less important, health-wise.
Our bodies naturally have the amino acids that are required to make collagen, so many vegans assume they don’t need to worry about consuming it as a supplement or through their food.
Unfortunately, there are a variety of types of collagen that each have their own unique recipes of amino acids and environmental requirements to bring them together to form the type of collagen your body needs.
Instead of taking a collagen supplement, which would be ideal – whether you’re vegan or not – is to simply make sure your body has plenty of all the building blocks, or peptides, required to make all the different varieties of collagen it needs.
A supplement like Sunwarrior Vegan Protein Peptides with Hyaluronic Acid & Biotin will get you all the benefits in a vegan-friendly formulation.
What Is Jello Made Of?
Jello is made up mainly of gelatin, which gives it the signature jiggly consistency. Alone, gelatin is not a sweet and delicious treat, so there’s also a good amount of sweetening and flavoring agents, as well as color.
The additives are often artificial and chemical-based. However, consumer demand is shifting the trend toward naturally-derived flavors and colors, such as what you get from beets and carrots.
Gelatin Vs Collagen?
Gelatin is derived from collagen and is essentially just the cooked version. They’re not the same thing and have very different uses, but they do have very similar health benefits.
Collagen is a protein found mainly in the bones, skin, tendons, and ligaments of both humans and animals. It’s incredibly important to your health, but as we age, we start to naturally produce less and less of it.
Gelatin is almost exclusively collagen, extracted from the skin and bones of animals to make it more palatable for human consumption.
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