My Experience Making Jell-O

I remember this one weird epiphany moment when my family and I were at this Asian buffet near my cousin’s house in Connecticut. To be honest, it wasn’t really anything special — just your usual hibachi stand behind the rows and rows of Chinese food mixed in with some out-of-place American cuisine like pizza or chicken nuggets. I’ve always been the person to never eat anything else other than the hibachi stir-fry, but today, I wanted to try something new. After eating my usual hibachi dinner with egg, lamb, and a bunch of miscellaneous vegetables, I went to the self-serving stands and got myself some ready-made Chinese food.

(image credit: https://www.groupon.com/deals/pearl-china-buffet-2)

Not feeling quite satisfied yet, I then went to the dessert row to get some sweets. Looking at the wide array of options available, it suddenly hit me out of nowhere: how come the fruits were always separated from the Jell-O? Why can’t the fruit be mixed inside the Jell-O…wouldn’t that make the taste so much better? You’ve seen these gelatin with fruit molds before —

(image credit: https://www.kraftrecipes.com/recipe/053280/jell-o-fruit-mold)

Going home that day, I went online and found that there was in fact a reason behind this and that there were even science fair projects about it. Although this is not true for all fruits, some contain an enzyme called protease. Protease is a peptide-cutting enzyme that effectively breaks down proteins via a hydrolytic process, where water acts as the main catalysis in the chemical reaction.

Gelatin, or Jell-O, is essentially just a large protein. In fact, gelatin is predominately made up (in addition to a bunch of other chemicals and molecules) of collagen, a structural protein found in nearly all animals. If you’ve ever made Jell-O before from those powered packages, you’ll remember that it involves first mixing in the Jell-O powder with hot water and then letting the mixture cool down. This process of heating and cooling is what allows the polypeptide chain that comprises Jell-O to only cross-link at certain areas along its structure, giving Jell-O its famous semi-solid, amorphous structure.

This complicated thing is what Jell-O is made of (image credit: https://proteopedia.org/wiki/index.php/Collagen_Structure_%26_Function)

Thus, because Jell-O is just a large protein and protease is a protein-killer, gelatin cannot solidify in the presence of those fruits that contain the enzyme. I don’t know if this is why buffets sometimes separate fruits from gelatin, or if it’s just a coincidence. Either way, inspired by this moment, I decided to use this idea to enter my 9th grade science fair competition. My problem question: how could I make gelatin in the presence of protease-containing fruits?

However — seeing that this has already been done online — I had to twist it somehow to make it my own. Online, it seemed as though the traditional method to approach this problem was to use heat to denature the enzymes in the fruits, and this would allow the gelatin to solidify since the protease would be effectively inactivated. But the beauty of biology is that, in its vastness, it presents us with seemingly infinite solutions to approach any problem that we might face. Given this fundamental truth, there were other solutions out there that I just needed to discover for myself. Although many of my ideas and experiments turned out to be utter failures, in the end, I did find some pretty unique solutions. One particular experiment, inspired by my grandfather’s locally famous braised pork recipe that involves using a heavy coating of spices and marinade to act as a barrier to slowly cook the pork’s inner fat, stands out to this day. Why not apply this principle and try candy-coating the fruits to block the fruits’ enzymes from interacting with the Jell-O?

I ended up candy-coating my fruits using a mixture of corn syrup and sugar (image credit: https://www.thespruceeats.com/glazed-strawberries-520816)

I remember for this particular experiment, after finding the next morning that the gelatin successfully solidified around my candy-coated pineapple pieces, I immediately yelled for my mom in excitement. I couldn’t resist not trying the Jell-O, and it turns out that the candy added another layer of sweetness that complemented the fruit and Jell-O’s flavor quite well. My dad was at China working while this happened, and I immediately called him using FaceTime to let him know about the success of the experiment. From that point on, I felt so encouraged, so motivated to keep on finding new, even weirder recipes.

In the end, I’m very grateful for this experience of making Jell-O. I learned that no matter how difficult or simple a project may seem, the possibilities for exploration are always there — because that’s just how biology works. I encourage all of you to discover this excitement for yourself, and I just can’t wait to see how far the scientific world will go!

Adam Zhang

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