The Collagen Controversy

Remember when collagen was something that doctors were injecting into our faces to make us look younger? Whether it was fuller lips or plumper cheeks, collagen was all the rage in 80’s and 90’s for turning back the clock on aging. Now it’s making headlines as a cure-all for everything from joint pain to improved skin elasticity. But is it safe? Or even effective? Or is this just another research-biased, hyped-up superfood we are wasting our money on? U.S. consumers are expected to spend $122 million on collagen products. That’s up 30% from last year, according to market research firm, Nutrition Business Journal.

So let’s look at the facts: the chart below provides a detailed explanation but basically, collagen is a protein found in the skin, bones and cartilage of animals and humans. Ground up hooves, hides and tissues. Appetizing, right? Sounds more like a receipt for Mad Cow disease to me. However, before I inject my opinion here (pun intended), let’s examine the (little) research that has been done recently.

 
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In a randomized controlled trial, The British Journal of Nutrition found that collagen peptide supplementation in combination with resistance training improves body composition and increases muscle strength in elderly men with sarcopenia (loss of skeletal muscle due to aging). The study consisted of 53 elderly men with sarcopenia and found that those who took 15 grams of collagen daily, in addition to lifting weights three times per week for 3 months, gained significantly more muscle and lost more fat than those who only lifted weights. While this study is somewhat promising, it’s difficult to directly correlate collagen supplementation with the resulting benefits since significant resistance training (a proven method for improving muscle mass) was also used.

Another study in Skin Pharmacology & Physiology found that women who took 1 gram per day of a chicken-derived collagen supplement for 12 weeks had 76% less dryness, 12% fewer visible wrinkles, better blood flow in the skin, and a 6% higher collagen content. Meh. Some statistically significant findings here but I’m not that impressed. Now for my opinion…

Aside from the fact that eating emulsified cartilage and bone from animals sounds disgusting, what about the potential safety issues? How do we know where the collagen we’re consuming is sourced? The likelihood that there are contaminants (like heavy metals which are attracted to these animal byproducts) could be pretty high. You’ll notice that there is usually a disclaimer displayed on collagen products that they have been checked for heavy metals…make sure to look for that!

As a nutritionist with a basic understanding of biochemistry, when you consume collagen and it your body digests it, it is broken down into amino acids that your body then uses to create whatever protein it needs for various functions. In other words, your body doesn’t absorb it in it’s whole form and it doesn’t necessarily produce more of it. Your body actually makes collagen on it’s own. If your diet contains any protein sources like chicken, beef or egg whites, chances are, you are creating the building blocks for collagen production.

As a side note, there are four key nutrients that aid in increasing collagen production: Vitamin C, Proline, Glycine, and Copper.

 

Vitamin C: As you know, you can find this vitamin in a lot of bright, colorful foods: strawberries, pineapples, oranges, mangoes, brussels sprouts, kiwis, papayas… the list could go on.

Proline: An amino acid that is found in meat.

Glycine: an amino acid found in plant sources such as beans, spinach, kale, cauliflower and pumpkin but it can also be found in meat, dairy products, poultry, eggs and fish.

Copper: a mineral found throughout the body. The top food sources of copper are beef liver, sunflower seeds, lentils and almonds.

 

These food sources are part of a healthy and complete diet and contain many other nutrients beneficial for optimal health. In fact, if you were to only to supplement with collagen for protein, you would be missing out as it does not contain all of the essential amino acids (making it an incomplete protein).

Although collagen has been around for a long time, the benefits it’s claiming most recently have not been thoroughly researched. So far, the evidence seems to be lacking any real substance given the short term studies with limited subjects. However, the science is building and there will be plenty more evidence to come. Until then, I wouldn’t run out for that collagen-infused protein bar just yet!

Amanda Gay