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.
But what’s in them, exactly? “Collagen is the main structural protein in the body,” explains Amanda Barnes, a registered dietitian. “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 and 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.
HOW DID COLLAGEN SUPPLEMENTS GET SO POPULAR?
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, a registered dietitian. 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.
DO THEY REALLY WORK?
That brings us to the next, most important question: How strong is the evidence for collagen peptides’ effectiveness? “There has been some research done on collagen supplementation but much of it is still controversial,” Barnes says. While it’s indisputable that we have collagen in our bodies and that we have less of it as we get older, it remains to be proven that our bodies can use the collagen we ingest to replenish our stores of it.
“Collagen is made up of amino acids and a lot of the research done is using specific amino acids, rather than the full collagen supplementation,” Barnes explains. “Some of the research also includes added vitamin and minerals in addition to amino acids.” Because of this, the results of many of the studies are not considered conclusive by nutrition experts.
But it’s not all bad news. “Although the research is not all conclusive, there are some studies that do show benefits in skin elasticity and joint pain reduction over time after using supplements for upwards of 4–6 weeks,” Barnes says. Unfortunately, these studies have been done on smaller groups of people, which makes it hard to consider them definitive. Similarly, benefits for gut health, muscle recovery and acne have not been scientifically proven to date.
Of course, that doesn’t mean those benefits aren’t real, but it’s worth knowing the level of evidence available on a supplement before you shell out for it. “The good news is there are no harmful effects known at this time, because collagen is a natural substance found in animal proteins,” Barnes points out. “The only downside at this time is the effect it will have on your wallet, as these supplements can be quite expensive. Plus, the younger you are, the less likely you are to need a collagen supplement. “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.”
Still, there may be another reason to consider taking collagen peptides. “Collagen peptide supplements contain amino acids that are needed for everyday functions, and they’re a great alternative to protein powders,” Perrin says. “Many people who are simply trying to maintain their weight rather than build muscle are using the wrong protein powders,” she adds. Collagen peptides are high in protein, there are usually no other added ingredients and they can be added to almost anything, making them extremely convenient for those looking for a protein boost who don’t want extra flavors or chemicals in their diets.
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HOW TO PICK A COLLAGEN SUPPLEMENT
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.