I’ve been drinking a lot of this collagen creamer from Vital Proteins in my coffee in the morning. I came across it in Target, and in my tired state, I threw it into my cart. Buying a supplement without researching it is unlike like me, but upon seeing that there was 10g of protein in something I could throw in my coffee, I didn’t give it much thought. A few days into drinking the creamer, I finally read the back of the container. After instinctively shuddering and reliving some of the more painful years of my Biochemistry degree upon seeing the list of amino acids, I started to look a little more closely. I thought, “…..does taking collagen actually work?”.
I hadn’t heard of collagen as a supplement until the last few years or so. It seems like the recent collagen hype is the result of a significant amount of marketing. Nearly every influencer on the planet is hyping up collagen proteins in their morning coffee or smoothie, and including it in their skincare routines. My esthetician raves about the potential for increased collagen production and aging prevention from microneedling.
In the interest of justifying an expensive coffee creamer, I wanted to understand the science of collagen supplements.
What is protein?
Understanding a bit about protein will help us understand the potential benefits (or not) associated with taking collagen. Protein is, basically, us. Everything from hormones to the enzymes to the cellular structures that allow us to move are proteins. There are a lot of proteins in the body. I wrote my entire master’s thesis on one singular protein. If you’re curious about protein synthesis (how proteins are made), I go into it a little bit here.
However, when most of us talk about needing “more protein” in our diet, we probably aren’t talking about eating immunoglobulins or hemoglobin, (except for vampires). But with so many proteins in the body, it makes sense that when talking about all of the different food sources we have available, there’s a huge diversity of proteins available in our diet or as supplements.
Proteins are all made of amino acids. There’s 21 of them in humans, but 20 are found in our genetic code. Essential amino acids are the 9 amino acids we can’t produce on our own, meaning it must come from our diet. If a protein contains all of them, we refer to it as a complete protein. Animal sources tend to be complete, and most plant sources are often lacking one or more of the essential amino acids.
What’s the science of collagen supplements?
Collagen is among the many proteins that make up our body, accounting for about a third of our total protein weight. It is the main protein in our connective tissues, meaning it’s a major component of skin, bones, and ligaments. As we age, we progressively lose collagen to the tune of about 1% a year, meaning that someone at age 85 only has about 25% of the collagen a young adult would have.
Collagen isn’t a complete protein, containing only 8 of the 9 essential amino acids. Although it also contains a large amount of hydroxyproline, glycine, and proline, for muscle building and recovery, you need all 9. This means that throwing it in coffee and calling it “breakfast” like I was doing doesn’t really cut it.
No one asked, but this is what collagen looks like. The pentagon-looking shapes are prolines/hydroxyprolines. (Wikimedia Commons)
What are the benefits of taking collagen supplements?
In order for it to be taken as a supplement, collagen is broken down (hydrolyzed) into chains of amino acids called peptides. Peptides are more bioavailable, or more easily absorbed by the body, and are more easily dissolved in water.
Although there is not a significant amount of studies performed on hydrolyzed collagen supplementation, there is some evidence that it can increase skin elasticity and hydration when consumed orally. This can mean smoother skin and fewer wrinkles, a definite perk for such an easy addition to one’s daily routine. Collagen supplementation has also been reported to reduce joint pain in athletes and knee pain in osteoarthritis sufferers.
Is taking collagen overhyped?
As for any topical collagen products, save your money, and get a retinol or retinoid. Collagen itself is way too big of a molecule to be absorbed through the skin, but retinols and retinoids can increase your skin’s production of its own collagen. I love The Ordinary’s 0.5% Retinol, which is less than ~$6. Although it’s not super potent, starting with a lower concentration is recommended, as many people with sensitive skin can react to retinol. If you are looking for anything higher than 2%, you’ll need a prescription.
While there is decent evidence suggesting that oral collagen does have benefits, for those of us who like it in coffee, I have bad news. Collagen breaks down at body temperature and is not stable (i.e. doesn’t work) at too acidic or too basic of a pH. Coffee’s pH is between 4.5 and 6.0 and most of us like it hot.
Additionally, the pH evidence is a bit worrying, as our stomach acid is far more acidic (pH 1.5-3.5). I couldn’t find any studies that looked at how well collagen is absorbed after exposure to stomach acid, so further research is definitely required on this front.
Is taking collagen safe?
There are some concerns about collagen from a safety standpoint, due to the fact that 35% of the collagen on the market in 2019 came from bovine sources. This is likely because it is a lot cheaper than porcine or marine sources, but poses a problem for the risk of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or what’s commonly known as Mad Cow Disease. If the disease is passed to humans, it can cause a form of Creutzfelt-Jakob disease, which results in rapid brain degeneration, dementia, and death.
Most regulations state that hydrolyzed protein doesn’t pose a risk, provided it is processed correctly. I’m not overly concerned about this, but with collagen demand forecasted to increase nearly 6% annually over the next 7 years, this could cause problems as producers seek to cut costs.
Additionally, as I’ve mentioned before, anything that could contribute to more cattle farming is likely to be detrimental to the environment. In researching my sweet sweet creamer, I found that the source of Vital Proteins’ collagen is from Brazilian bovine hide. While I appreciate the transparency about where their collagen is sourced, given that cattle ranching in the Amazon is responsible for 80% of its deforestation, it’s certainly not ideal.
So, does taking collagen actually work? And, should I take it?
I don’t have a definitive answer here. If you’re trying to avoid eating real food for breakfast, bulk up after the gym, or go vegetarian/vegan, it’s not for you. If you’re shelling out $100+ for collagen lotions, stop that and buy a tub of Cera Ve like every dermatologist on the planet.
Collagen seems to be worth it if you’re consuming peptides on a regular basis with the goal of improving skin quality and hydration, but just like the also very-hyped biotin, the research doesn’t seem to be conclusive.
Although it’s likely I buy collagen supplements again, I might also try mixing my favorite vegan protein powder in with my morning coffee and see if it’s an effective substitute.
And next time, I won’t fall into the trap of buying everything that looks good at Target.
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