Are collagen supplements the fountain of youth or an edible hoax? Second-year FANPP student Zoe Gregorace gives us the scoop.
New food trends are constantly coming onto the scene and consumers are flooded with advertisements about the latest miracle ingredient. On a recent trip to Whole Foods, I found myself bombarded with collagen in the form of powders, capsules, bars, etc. With the rise in popularity of “skin routines,” it’s a no-brainer that supplement companies are jumping on the bandwagon and releasing products that will supposedly support beautiful, glowing, healthy skin. I fell victim to the marketing and have been sprinkling collagen powder in my coffee for about a year now. I haven’t noticed any obvious changes, and part of me thinks it is a scam, however I am on a quest to discover whether or not the hype around collagen is actually backed by scientific evidence as well as nutrition professionals.
So, why did I buy it in the first place? Collagen is a protein. When we ingest protein, an enzyme in the stomach called pepsin breaks it down into smaller polypeptides and amino acids. From the stomach, the mixture passes through the small intestine and is further broken down into smaller amino acids, called free amino acids by the secretin enzyme. These free amino acids are then transported across the intestinal membrane, transferred into the bloodstream and delivered to the liver and other body cells for protein synthesis.1 In the human body, collagen is a component of our skin, bone, muscle and ligaments. While collagen supplements are associated with improving the structure and function of these connective tissues, the misconception here is that consumption of collagen will increase its abundance in the body. According to Hannah Meier, a registered dietitian who currently works for a small food company, nutrition messaging provided by supplement companies are misleading. “Eating collagen doesn’t necessarily turn back into collagen in your body,” Meier says. “Since it is a protein, collagen cannot be digested in its whole form, meaning that it will be broken down into amino acids just as any other protein. When it comes to protein synthesis, it is impossible to predict the type of protein the body will produce. Our body is able to prioritize its needs and therefore, the digested collagen peptides could be used to create any other type of protein.”
Whereas collagen can be found in bone broth and animal products that contain connective tissue, collagen supplements are derived from these whole food sources and hydrolyzed into peptides to increase its bioavailability.2 Collagen peptide supplements are typically in powder form to facilitate incorporation into food or drink. Despite the misconception regarding collagen metabolism, a few studies show that collagen peptide supplements actually have some beauty benefits. Results from two clinical trials suggested that daily supplementation of 10g of collagen peptides over an 8 week period significantly increased skin moisture levels by 28 percent.3 Similarly, supplementation of collagen peptides from fish improved skin hydration, collagen density and reduced collagen fragmentation.3 Fragmentation is detrimental to the structural integrity of the dermal matrix, resulting in increased fragility of the skin. Over time, degradation of collagen contributes to wrinkles and visible signs of aging. Therefore, maintaining the dermal collagen matrix can improve the skin’s youthful appearance.3
Another study suggests that collagen peptide supplements can improve nail strength and hair thickness.4,5 Given the principles of protein metabolism, it is possible that collagen peptide consumption induced collagen production for those participants that experienced acute beauty benefits. In both studies, the research participants were between 40 and 59 years old and categorized as having low skin water content. Therefore, the amino acids from the peptides were likely allocated to produce new collagen in response to the body’s inadequate collagen matrix. While these results are encouraging for adults with skin dryness, there seems to be a gap in the literature focusing on young adults with no preexisting skin conditions. Few studies provide preliminary evidence of collagen peptides combating early signs of skin-aging and more research must be done to confidently determine the effects of collagen peptide supplements.
Though nutrition quality plays a role in skin health, collagen supplementation is not the only proponent of good skin. According to dietetic intern and nutrition consultant Dasha Agoulnik, results of collagen studies may be inaccurate because the content of participants’ diets are not being controlled. “The fact that most of these studies are done in people who aren’t receiving optimum protein sources—a lot of time the protein isn’t controlled for in the study—has a lot to say for the quality of the data we have right now, because if these people are consuming sufficient amount of protein, they would still see the same results. That is the biggest downfall.” Besides confounding variables, industry influence and media attention play a major role in how results are strategically reported to the public. Industry funded studies are biased in that they tend to produce desirable outcomes, whereas the media tends to sensationalize results, skewing public perception of nutrition science.
To communicate the health benefits of collagen, supplement companies utilize brightly colored packaging, catchy slogans and tailored messaging. These companies are capitalizing on consumers’ lack of knowledge on protein metabolism as well as trends such as “functional foods,” “skin care,” and “protein.” The company Vital Proteins, which sells large canisters of collagen peptide powder in various flavors, attracts consumers by focusing on the beauty benefits of consuming collagen on a daily basis. A quote taken from the Vital Proteins website summarizes the company’s manifesto as, “Beauty that begins from within.” Other descriptions found on the Vital Proteins website reveal that their products promise to “restore the skin’s moisture, improving elasticity, tone and vibrancy that’s already within you.” While this description seems enticing, there is no mention of scientific evidence to support this phenomenon, leaving skeptical consumers like me in the dark. Meier acknowledges the motives of supplement companies and their misleading marketing messages to consumers. While companies like Vital Proteins are vigilantly advocating for collagen peptides, Meier reinforces that “collagen is not a more magical source of protein different from any other protein that you get from food.”
Combined with consumer skepticism, an understanding of nutrition science will allow shoppers to make better informed decisions when buying supplements. While professional opinions on this topic may vary, supplements are not replacements for real food. For the sake of collagen peptides, Meier advises that “nutrient adequacy and a supply of a variety of nutrients will have a greater benefit on your skin and nails.” Agoulnik also weighs in, stating “Marketing has skewed it to show that you need collagen specifically, whereas a lot of people don’t realize that you can just eat chicken or eggs, and it will still provide you with that amino acid profile that you need and more.” At the end of the day, collagen is a type of protein, no different than the kind we get from real food sources. So why purchase a canister of Vital Proteins collagen peptide powder for over $40 if you can just eat a wholesome, protein packed meal instead?
The real question here is this: should I take collagen supplements to help me achieve beautiful skin, just as promised on the label? After conducting some research and talking to nutrition professionals, I’ve concluded that sprinkling collagen in my coffee will not produce miraculous results. As much as I wanted to believe that one scoop of Vanilla collagen peptides in my coffee would prepare me for the red carpet, I, like many consumers, was lured in by attractive messaging that does not hold true in the world of nutrition science. With a better understanding of manipulative marketing tactics, I’ve shifted my trust from supplement companies to the nutrition professionals, whose advice is likely unbiased and rooted in scientific evidence. If you have dry or normal skin and are still looking into taking collagen supplements, I will say that it can’t hurt, but manage your expectations and educate yourself on the science behind the ingredient. Based on professional advice, the bottom line is this: as a nutritional approach to better skin, focus on consuming protein from real food sources and save your money on fancy supplements.
- “Chapter 24. Metabolism and Nutrition.” Anatomy and Physiology. OpenStax, 2013, p. 165.
- Santa Cruz, Jamie. “Dietary Collagen — Should Consumers Believe the Hype?” Today’s Dietician, vol. 21, no. 3, Mar. 2019, p. 26.
- Asserin, Jerome, et al. “The effect of oral collagen peptide supplementation on skin moisture and the dermal collagen network: evidence from an ex vivo model and randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials.” Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, vol. 14, 23 July 2015, pp. 291-301.
- Hexsel, Doris, et al. “Oral supplementation with specific bioactive collagen peptides improves nail growth and reduces symptoms of brittle nails.” Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, vol. 16, no. 4, Aug. 2017.
- Maeda, Kazuhisa. “Skin-Moisturizing Effect of Collagen Peptides Taking Orally.” Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences, vol. 8, no. 2, Mar. 2018.
Zoe Gregorace is a second-year Food and Nutrition Policy and Programs student at Friedman, interested in nutrition communication and increasing industry transparency. In her free time, she enjoys writing recipe articles, photographing her culinary creations and sharing them on her Instagram page @whatzoeeeats.