San Francisco Start-Up Working on Vegan Gelatin

Little do most consumers know that marshmallows and gummy bears aren’t the innocuous treats they appear to be. Like so many other common products, the traditional versions contain gelatin, a macabre ingredient derived from skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones of cows and pigs.

Thankfully for animals and consumers alike, a new start-up, Gelzen, is working on creating vegan gelatin.

The San Francisco-based company was founded by partners Alex Lorestani and Nick Ouzounov. Lorestani was in a physician-scientist training program, and quickly learned about the growing risk of infectious disease thanks to antibiotic resistant bacteria (fueled by antiobiotic use in farm animals). Ouzounov earned his PhD in Molecular Biology at Princeton University, and as a vegetarian was frustrated by the lack of an animal-free gelatin alternative.

Alex Lorestani and Nick Ouzounov

Alex Lorestani and Nick Ouzounov

As far as the science, the whole process revolves around microbes. “We make gelatin from scratch by programming microbes to build it for us,” explains Lorestani. “It’s the same approach that humans use to brew beer, make insulin, and many other animal-free products.”

Gelzen’s version of gelatin will be cruelty-free, sustainable, and safer for human consumption.

“We have taken the machinery that builds collagen in animals, and moved it into microbes. These microbes can produce animal-free gelatin at massive scales. Building gelatin from scratch also eliminates the risk of pathogens that can be transmitted from animal material to humans, greatly improves the efficiency of protein production by using fewer land and water inputs, and allows us to precisely engineer its key properties like stiffness.”

Considering that gelatin is in a countless number of products, from gel-caps to Jello, the market for a better version has the potential to be huge. As The New Omnivore put it: “With its special versatility, stability, and more predictable quality, as well as the fact that conventional gelatin is a by-product of the hugely wasteful factory farming system, Gelzen’s new gelatin represents another bright step forward to animal-free food production.”

So where does production currently stand? “We built the collagen-producing microbial factories,” explains Lorestani. “Now, we’re focusing on scaling production up and making prototypes for customers to test. We are thrilled by how supportive the vegan community has been. There’s a real and urgent need for animal-free gelatin, and we’re working hard to get it out there!”