On the long list of problems facing the world, gummy bears don't rank very high. But the candy—like yogurt, Frosted Mini Wheats, and many other foods, cosmetics, and drugs—is made with gelatin, and because gelatin is made from animal bones and tissues, it intersects with the much larger set of problems caused by factory farms.
While vegan alternatives to gelatin exist, they don't work particularly well. So a Bay Area-based startup called Geltor is using genetic engineering to make animal-free gelatin that's identical to the traditional product. The company programs microbes with the same genes that produce gelatin in animals and then uses those microbes to "brew" the product.
Co-founders Alexander Lorestani and Nikolay Ouzounov were grad students in molecular biology at Princeton University when they started exploring the idea. Lorestani, who was studying the problem of antibiotic resistance, became particularly interested in finding solutions for agriculture. Around 70% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on livestock.
"When I started looking at the systemic underpinnings of the global problem that is antibiotic resistance, the first thing on the list is the food system . . . and our overuse and misuse of antibiotics within that sphere," says Lorestani.
Factory farming poses other problems, from water use in drought-stricken states like California to animal cruelty and massive greenhouse gas emissions. While other companies in the post-animal economy try to come up with cultured hamburgers and leather fermented from mushrooms, Lorestani and Ouzounov decided to focus on gelatin.
"It's perfect in that it is so elegantly simple," Lorestani says. "It's made of one thing, which is collagen, and collagen is extremely well understood. It's this extremely elegant, repetitive structure...from a manufacturing standpoint, it was really exciting because it took a lot of the basic complexity out of the equation."
It was also simple in terms of what the market wanted, from pharmaceutical companies using gelatin to coat pills, to ice cream manufacturers.
"The people who actually use it care about one thing," he says. "They care about how stiff it is. When you're talking about food, people usually care about a lot more than one thing. They care about smell, which is really a million things. They care about flavor, which is really a million things. They care about color, which is 1000 things. When you have one dimension or one parameter that you need to optimize for, which in our case is stiffness, that is a perfect sort of problem to work on."
There's also clear market demand. Vegans and vegetarians want vegan gummy bears, but the plant-based alternatives to gelatin are more expensive and less functional.
For manufacturers, the new process would also be much more efficient. Raising an animal can take years; after the animal is slaughtered, processing the scraps in an acid bath can take a month, with further processing needed after that.
This video shows the (somewhat horrific) life of a gummy candy in reverse:
Making gelatin from microbes, by contrast, takes around a week or less. It also can be tailored to have specific properties depending on a manufacturer's need. It also can make varieties of gelatin that never existed before; for fun, the startup recently demonstrated that it could make "mastodon gelatin" using the sequence of the mastodon genome.
Geltor is focused now on scaling their production platform up so it can begin manufacturing—and figuring out how to make their gelatin as cheap, or cheaper, than the current product on market.
In the future, the brewed gelatin could eventually replace the traditional kind completely. On its own, this won't solve the problem of factory farming; since gelatin is a byproduct, animals will continue to be raised until consumers decide to accept animal-free meat and leather as well.
[Photos: Flickr user jamz196]