Downing a gelatin snack along with some O.J. before exercising might limit injury to bones and muscles, a new study shows. This means the jiggly snack might have health benefits.
Gelatin is an ingredient made from collagen, the most abundant protein in an animal’s body. (Most Americans know gelatin as the basis of Jell-O, a popular treat.) Collagen is part of our bones and ligaments. So Keith Baar wondered if eating gelatin might help those important tissues. As a physiologist at the University of California, Davis, Baar studies how the body works.
To test his idea, Baar and his colleagues had eight men jump rope for six minutes straight. Each man did this routine on three different days. An hour before each workout, the researchers gave the men a gelatin snack. But it differed slightly each time. On one day it had a lot of gelatin. Another time, it had just a little. On a third day, the snack contained no gelatin.
Neither the athletes nor the researchers knew on which day a man got a particular snack. Such tests are known as “double blind.” That’s because both the participants and scientists are “blind” to the treatments at the time. That keeps people’s expectations from affecting how they initially interpret the results.
On the day the men ate the most gelatin, their blood contained the highest levels of collagen’s building blocks, the researchers found. That suggested that eating gelatin might help the body make more collagen.
The team wanted to know whether these extra collagen building blocks might be good for ligaments, a tissue that connects bones. So the scientists collected another blood sample after each rope-skipping workout. Then they separated out the blood’s serum. This is a protein-rich liquid left behind when the blood cells are removed.
The researchers added this serum to cells from human ligaments that they were growing in a lab dish. The cells had formed a structure similar to a knee ligament. And serum from men who had eaten a gelatin-rich snack seemed to make that tissue stronger. For instance, the tissue didn’t tear as easily when tested in a machine that pulled on it from both ends.
Athletes who snack on gelatin may see similar benefits in their ligaments, Baar concludes. Their ligaments might not tear as easily. The gelatin snack may also help heal tears, he says.
His team described its findings late last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
No guarantees in the real world
These results do suggest eating gelatin may help with tissue repair, agrees Rebekah Alcock. She is a dietician who did not take part in the new study. A graduate student at Australian Catholic University in Sydney, she studies supplements that might prevent injuries or help heal them. (She also works for the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra.)
Still, she adds, this research is only in its early stages. It will take more work to prove that gelatin boosts tissue health. In fact, she says, a generally healthy diet may offer the same benefit.
But if gelatin does help strengthen and heal tissues, it could be especially important for athletic girls, Baar suspects.
Why? When girls hit puberty, their bodies begin making more estrogen. This is a hormone, a type of signaling molecule. Estrogen gets in the way of the chemical building blocks that help collagen stiffen and strengthen. Stiffer collagen keeps tendons and ligaments from moving as freely, which might prevent tears. If girls eat gelatin from a young age, Baar says, it may stiffen their collagen and help keep them injury-free as they get older.
Baar’s daughter, who is 9 years old, follows her dad’s advice. She eats a gelatin snack before playing soccer and basketball. Although Baar says Jell-O and other commercial brands should work, his daughter’s finger-food is homemade. Store-bought gelatin snacks have “too much sugar,” Baar says. That’s why he suggests buying gelatin and mixing it with fruit juice for flavor. He prefers one low in sugar and high in vitamin C (such as Ribena, a brand of black current juice).
Vitamin C actually plays an important role in collagen production. So to get the full benefits, Baar contends, athletes would need plenty of that vitamin in addition to the gelatin.
Eating gelatin rich in vitamin C could help mend a broken bone or torn ligament, Baar believes. “Bones are like cement,” he says. “If there’s a building being built out of cement, there are usually steel rods to give it strength. Collagen acts like the steel rods.” If you add gelatin to your diet, he explains, you’ll give your bones more collagen to build bone faster.
“It’s something to think about when we get hurt ― or really before it happens,” Baar says.
cell The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the naked eye, it consists of watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells, depending on their size. Some organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.
cement A finely ground material used to bind sand or bits of ground rock together in concrete. Cement typically starts out as a powder. But once wet, it becomes a mudlike sludge that hardens as it dries.
chemical A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical can also be an adjective to describesproperties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.
clinical (in medicine) A term that refers to diagnoses, treatments or experiments involving people.
collagen A fibrous protein found in bones, cartilage, tendons and other connective tissues.
colleague Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.
commercial (in research and economics) An adjective for something that is ready for sale or already being sold. Commercial goods are those caught or produced for others, and not solely for personal consumption.
diet The foods and liquids ingested by an animal to provide the nutrition it needs to grow and maintain health.
dietician A person trained to make expert recommendations about how to eat well. These experts tend to focus on portion size, nutrients (such as vitamins or protein levels), and any special needs associated with an individual’s particular health issues.
estrogen The primary female sex hormone in most higher vertebrates, including mammals and birds. Early in development, it helps an organism develop the features typical of a female. Later, it helps a female’s body prepare to mate and reproduce.
gelatin A substance made from animal collagen, usually bones and cow or pig hides. It starts out as a pale colored, tasteless powder. It contains proteins and amino acids. It can make jiggly desserts (like those known as Jell-O). But this substance also is used in yogurt, soups, candies and more. It can even be used as the basis of the clear capsules used to hold single-serving amounts of dry medicines.
graduate student Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).
hormone (in zoology and medicine) A chemical produced in a gland and then carried in the bloodstream to another part of the body. Hormones control many important body activities, such as growth. Hormones act by triggering or regulating chemical reactions in the body.
journal (in science) A publication in which scientists share their research findings with the public. Some journals publish papers from all fields of science, technology, engineering and math, while others are specific to a single subject. The best journals are peer-reviewed: They send out all submitted articles to outside experts to be read and critiqued. The goal, here, is to prevent the publication of mistakes, fraud or sloppy work.
ligament A fibrous and elastic material that connects one bone to another.
molecule An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).
muscle A type of tissue used to produce movement by contracting its cells, known as muscle fibers. Muscle is rich in protein, which is why predatory species seek prey containing lots of this tissue.
nutrition (adj. nutritious) The healthful components (nutrients) in the diet — such as proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals — that the body uses to grow and to fuel its processes.
physiologist A scientist who studies the branch of biology that deals with how the bodies of healthy organisms function under normal circumstances.
protein Compound made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. The hemoglobin in blood and the antibodies that attempt to fight infections are among the better-known, stand-alone proteins. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.
puberty A developmental period in humans and other primates when the body undergoes hormonal changes that will result in the maturation of reproductive organs.
red blood cell Colored red by hemoglobin, these cells move oxygen from the lungs to all tissues of the body. Red blood cells are too small to be seen by the naked eye.
serum The part of blood that contains neither blood cells nor chemicals that help with clotting.
supplement (in nutrition) Something taken in pill or liquid form — often a vitamin or mineral — to improve the diet. For instance, it may provide more of some nutrient that is believed to benefit health.
tendon A tissue in the body that connects muscle and bone.
tissue Any of the distinct types of material, comprised of cells, which make up animals, plants or fungi. Cells within a tissue work as a unit to perform a particular function in living organisms. Different organs of the human body, for instance, often are made from many different types of tissues.
vitamin Any of a group of chemicals that are essential for normal growth and nutrition and are required in small quantities in the diet because they either cannot be made by the body or cannot be easily made in sufficient amounts.
Journal: G. Shaw et al. Vitamin C–enriched gelatin supplementation before intermittent activity augments collagen synthesis. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol. 105, January 2017, p. 136. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.116.138594.
Journal: M. Levine and P-C Violet. Breaking down, starting up: Can a vitamin C–enriched gelatin supplement before exercise increase collagen synthesis? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol. 105, January 2017, p. 5. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.116.148312.