Check out the shelves of any health food store or browse clean eating Instagram accounts and you’re sure to encounter collagen peptide supplements. Touted as the “next big thing” in anti-aging, joint health and even gut health, collagen supplements seem like they could be part of the answer to many of our health and nutrition woes.
“Collagen is the main structural protein in the body,” explains Amanda Barnes, RD. “It forms connective tissues, skin, hair, cartilage and is used to build muscle.” The most common form of collagen supplement is collagen peptides, also known as hydrolyzed collagen, which means it contains protein fragments that are easier to digest than full collagen molecules. These supplements are usually made either from fish parts (marine collagen) or cow parts (beef/bovine collagen). While what they’re made from might seem a little unsavory, collagen peptides are usually administered in the form of a tasteless, easily dissolvable powder, making them simple to untraceably consume in hot beverages, soups, smoothies and more.
Essentially, collagen is one of the building blocks of the body, but as we age, the amount we have decreases. That’s part of why our skin gets wrinkly and our bone and joint health isn’t quite what it used to be. Because of this, it makes sense people would want to supplement with it, especially since collagen production begins to decline as early as age 20.
Luckily, there are lifestyle choices that can help preserve your existing collagen. “A healthy diet with adequate protein, proper hydration, and avoiding smoke and sun damage can decrease the amount of collagen lost over time,” Barnes says. Collagen supplementation advocates would argue that adding collagen to your daily nutritional intake can help, too.
There are 10s, maybe 100s of different anti-aging supplements out there, so it’s natural to wonder why collagen is gaining so much traction. “These supplements are getting a lot of attention right now because collagen is one of the first things we could be eating that actually restores our skin elasticity while also providing many other health benefits,” explains Amanda Perrin, RD. Most people are familiar with collagen in a cosmetic sense as an ingredient in skin-care products, but the health and wellness world is moving more and more toward beauty starting within the body rather than on the outside, Perrin says. “People are looking for the foods we can be eating or introducing to help prevent, treat or cure anything associated with aging or disease. Collagen peptides could be one of the answers.”
While there are many supposed benefits to collagen, the two primary ones are healthier, younger-looking skin and better joint health, making it appealing to those interested in aesthetics and performance alike. “The other claims are improved gut health, decrease in symptoms of osteoarthritis, reduced cellulite, help in muscle recovery after exercise, better sleep and help resolving acne issues,” Perrin says. “These come from either the collagen itself, or from the amino acids [building blocks of protein] that are present in the collagen supplement.” With all these potential benefits, it’s easy to understand why people are interested in trying collagen peptides.
Here’s where the situation gets a little bit sticky, says Kelly Hogan, MS, RD. “Despite much anecdotal evidence to the contrary, peer-reviewed research supporting perceived benefits of collagen is lacking.” There are small studies showing collagen supplementation with vitamin C may help prevent injuries and promote tissue repair in athletes, and other small studies suggesting collagen supplementation may improve skin elasticity. However, more large-scale clinical trials on a diverse sample size are needed before most clinicians can recommend supplementation with complete confidence.
Still, “collagen supplements are generally considered safe because it’s a natural substance found in animal proteins,” Barnes points out, so there’s no harm in trying them. “The only downside is the effect it will have on your wallet, as these supplements can be quite expensive.”
“Young people will not see the same benefits of supplementation, as your body is still producing collagen,” Barnes says. “For older individuals who have joint pain or leaky gut, it can’t hurt to try out supplementation if you think you might benefit.”
“Collagen can also be a great way to add more protein to your diet, but it’s important to keep in mind it’s not a complete protein,” says Hogan. This means it doesn’t contain all nine essential amino acids and is not as efficiently absorbed by the body as a complete protein, like a whey protein powder.
Moreover, if you’re consuming an adequate amount of protein, as well as foods rich in vitamin C, zinc and copper (Think: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans and shellfish), you probably don’t need a collagen supplement, adds Hogan.
There are a lot of choices out there, so if you do decide you want to try a collagen supplement, it’s a good idea to go into the shopping process knowing what you’re looking for. “Rather than getting a synthetic version, you want to choose a supplement that is coming from a natural source,” Perrin says. These will be labeled as bovine/beef or fish/marine collagen peptides.
And just a friendly reminder: “Collagen supplements are made from animal parts, so if you are vegan or vegetarian this is not for you,” Barnes notes. Ideally, you want to find a brand that’s using grass-fed animals if you’re opting for the bovine variety, she says. “Also, you will want to make sure it is hydrolyzed and try to find one with added vitamins or minerals, as this will help the body digest all of the amino acids.” Lastly, she suggests looking for a supplement that is NSF-certified, which means it’s been tested for quality standards. That way, you know exactly what you’re getting when you spend your hard-earned cash.
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A popular vehicle for collagen, which is tasteless, is in coffee or other hot beverages. “However, collagen proteins can be denatured at high temperatures, negating any perceived benefits,” says Hogan. A 2011 study found collagen fibers started degrading at around a temperature of 302°F (150°C). “Though coffee is typically brewed at temperatures closer to 200°F (93°C), collagen powder, which has already been broken down for easier digestion, may not maintain its integrity and I wouldn’t recommend using it with a hot beverage,” she says. Instead, Hogan recommends adding collagen to a smoothie, yogurt, iced coffee or overnight oats.
Vitamin C helps support the body’s natural production of collage, so taking collagen along with foods that contain vitamin C may be helpful. For example, use collagen powder in a smoothie made with citrus fruits, strawberries, blueberries and leafy greens like spinach.
In terms of when you should take collagen, “to date, there is no research that defines a specific time to consume collagen supplements for enhanced absorption and desired results,” says Hogan. “Take it at a time of day when you’ll remember it consistently, so you are more likely to reap possible benefits.”
“In addition to vitamin C, the body also requires the minerals zinc and copper to support the production of collagen,” says Hogan. Consuming foods rich in these minerals, like nuts, beans, whole grains, fish and meat, is key. Another great option is bone broth, which is rich in collagen thanks to the slow simmering process of beef, chicken and fish bones. Adding bone broth to the diet, especially as collagen production decreases with age, may also be helpful.
Ensuring the diet is rich in vitamin C, zinc, copper and quality protein sources is key for collagen production, and the ideal place to start, says Hogan. While more research is needed on the possible benefits, we do know that collagen supplementation is generally safe. If you’d like to try it, consider tracking your intake with an app like MyFitnessPal and check in with yourself after a month or two to see if you notice a difference (e.g., If you want stronger nails, are you seeing an improvement after consistently taking collagen?). If you aren’t perceiving the desired benefits, you might want to spend your money elsewhere and prioritize whole foods.
Originally published March 2018, updated with additional reporting by Kelly Hogan, MS, RD
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