We’ve long associated collagen with plumping up lips to look like a member of the Real Housewives. And in today’s world of beauty products, collagen-boosting ingredients can be found in facial creams, masks and even clothing.
But in the past couple of years, collagen has started appearing more in foods and drinks, in everything from protein bars to matcha powder to dietary supplements to coffee creamers.
But is it really worth our time and money to ingest collagen? We talked to experts to find out how eating foods with added collagen can affect our diet. Turns out, there’s little evidence that this trend is worth your money if you’re already eating a balanced diet.
First of all, what is collagen?
Collagen is the most prolific form of protein in our bodies and is significant in forming our connective tissues. Eugene Kang, co-founder and CEO of the San Bernardino, California-based beef jerky company Country Archer, explains: “Think of it as a glue that holds our body together. It helps build strong muscles, bones, hair, nails and tissues.”
Collagen can be found in muscles, bones, skin, blood vessels and tendons. It should be noted that the collagen used in foods is extracted from fish, bovine, eggshell membranes and poultry (gelatin is a form of collagen), so if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, it’s best to not eat or drink anything with added collagen in it.
Labels, meanwhile, can make matters confusing. In both the beauty and food worlds, products that claim to contain collagen often rather contain collagen-boosting ingredients. So if a product claims to contain a vegetarian or vegan form of collagen, you should immediately know that to be false ― it more likely contains a vegetarian or vegan collagen-boosting ingredient.
And the truth is, collagen and collagen-boosting ingredients are already packed into a lot of our food, such as bone broth, salmon, leafy greens, eggs, berries, tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, chlorella (green algae), chia seeds and avocados. Even vitamin C naturally stimulates collagen production — think eating oranges, or smearing vitamin C serum on your face.
Why is everyone consuming foods with added collagen right now?
Jordan Mazur is the coordinator of nutrition and team dietitian for the San Francisco 49ers football team, and he thinks more people have become aware of the benefits of collagen, especially his athletes. And they likely don’t realize it’s already in a lot of the foods they eat every day.
“Many of the clients I work with are elite athletes, and there is early research showing a benefit for strengthening ligament and joint health,” he said. “If collagen may be able to improve skin health and integrity and potentially reduce wrinkles and make one look younger, then there is going to be an appeal for most people, especially older adults. For athletes, the appeal is the potential for performance and potentially reducing injury.”
As a response to this demand, brands are producing a flurry of foods with added collagen.
In March, the aforementioned Country Archer jerky brand introduced three flavors of meat bars with added collagens of grass-fed beef and cage-free poultry. As far as Kang knows, his meat bars are the first ones to be collagen-enhanced. But Country Archer isn’t the only brand in on the collagen trend.
Bulletproof, the company that imbues healthy oils (they call it Brain Octane Oil) into its coffee, distributes flavored bars — mint chocolate chip, fudge brownie, lemon cookie — with grass-feed collagen added. They also produce powder collagen in unflavored, chocolate and vanilla versions.
In addition, Primal Kitchen uses grass-fed hydrolyzed cow collagen (whole proteins are broken down to peptide building blocks) in their protein bars and powders called Collagen Fuel; Vital Proteins has a line of collagen-enhanced matcha powders and drink creamers made of collagen from grass-fed, pasture-raised bovine hide; and alongside the collagen powders, Ancient Nutrition generates bone broth powder with added chicken collagen.
How much collagen should we be eating, and from which food sources?
Kang thinks collagen should come from both natural foods and collagen-enriched products, though his emphasis is on the latter.
However, Dr. Jennifer MacGregor, a dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York, suggests otherwise. “People that eat protein-rich foods probably do not need to add additional collagen, as there is no quality evidence this will stimulate them to maintain or guarantee more new collagen synthesis in the [body]. That said, we all need adequate vitamins and protein building blocks available.”
How do we even know how much collagen we’re getting in these collagen-boosted foods, anyway? Not all labels will tell.
Vital Proteins’ matcha, for example, lists that it contains 10 grams of collagen per packet. But other products, such as Primal Kitchen, Bulletproof, Ancient Nutrition and Country Archer only list the amount of protein in their products, not the amount of collagen. Not helpful.
Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t recommend ingesting any certain amount of collagen per day, your best bet is aiming to hit your daily protein goal. Protein intake requirements depend on age and lifestyle. (To calculate your own, go here.)
Mazur, though, suggests that consuming around 10 to 20 grams per day of collagen will give you some of its benefits.
“What’s important to remember about protein is that it is not stored in the body, so excess protein consumed is excreted in the body. It’s best to spread your protein intake evenly throughout the day to maximize protein turnover in the body.”
“Having extra peptides sitting around may not mean you make more collagen,” MacGregor said. “In fact, extra unused protein peptides sitting around in the body will convert to and get stored as fat just like other excess calories.”
Does collagen actually do anything significant for our health?
“I think that if you look at the research, there is a growing body of evidence to support the benefit of collagen in the diet for a number of health reasons,” Mazur said. “In a 2009 study, participants took a type II collagen [found in cartilage] supplement and results showed that osteoarthritis symptoms decreased by 40 percent while the severity of symptoms dropped by 33 percent. A study published in 2014 randomly chose 46 of 69 women, ages 35-55 years old, to take a collagen hydrolysate supplement. The women who took the collagen showed an improvement in skin elasticity within four weeks. Whether or not taking additional collagen supplements will help is up to your individual condition, age and lifestyle.”
If you’re wondering whether ingesting collagen will improve your skin, Dr. Mary Stevenson, assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Health, previously told HuffPost: “We do not have good data to suggest that ingesting collagen will result in it reaching your skin. When you ingest a protein it is broken down into amino acids and your body absorbs the nutrients you need. Generally speaking, unless you are deficient in protein, your body is remarkably efficient at absorbing what you need and discarding what you do not need.”
Though some studies point to collagen supplements and collagen-enhanced foods working for some people, a balanced diet is probably the way to go.
“My preference based on the scientific literature is to recommend a Paleolithic-style of eating with limited grains and essentially no processed foods or processed grains,” MacGregor said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story recommended an incorrect protein intake level. Language also has been amended to clarify that a list of foods contained collagen-boosting ingredients in addition to collagen.