Do Collagen Supplements Actually Work?
If like me, you’re semi-addicted to lifestyle blogs and YouTube channels, or even if you’ve just browsed the aisles of a Whole Foods Market or Trader Joes in the last year, you likely will have noticed the buzzy new product that has busted onto the health and wellness scene. I can’t seem to go anywhere these days without hearing someone talking about it. I find it advertised on the labels of protein bars, chocolates, and other random food items. It’s being touted as a miracle cure-all for everything from cellulite to anxiety to joint pain. What is this supposed panacea that I speak of?
Well, its collagen of course!
The concept of consuming collagen for health really isn’t new; it’s touted benefits are what has driven the bone broth craze for many years now. What is new is the rising popularity of using collagen protein powder as a nutritional supplement. Several prominent brands such as Vital Proteins, Bullet Proof, and Ancient Nutrition offer these collagen-based products at a premium. On average these powders cost around $2.30 per ounce which is more than three times the price of your average soy and whey-based protein supplements. How do they justify charging that much, you ask? According to posts from these companies and from independent blogs such as Healthline.com, unlike other protein supplements, collagen has the power to fix basically anything that could ever be wrong with you. The laundry list of outrageous claims includes:
Reducing wrinkles, improving skin hydration, improving nail strength, making hair grow faster and stronger, relieving joint pain, inhibiting the bone loss that leads to osteoporosis, increasing bone mineral density, boosting muscle mass, strengthening arterial walls, raising HDL cholesterol, improving gut health, reducing the risk of inflammatory bowel disease, better brain health, reducing anxiety, weight loss, and reduced cellulite.
Well damn! Is there nothing collagen can’t do? They even hire Registered Dietitians sing it’s praises and cite actual research studies to support its claims, so it must be legit and totally worth the cost…right? Well let’s dive in and find out.
Okay, I lied. I got excited and got ahead of myself. Before we get into the products themselves, we should probably learn a little bit about what collagen is in the first place:
Collagen is a protein that provides structural support to the connective tissues in the skin, bones, tendons, and ligaments. It is composed of 3 chains of amino acids wound together to form a very tight helix, and it is this 3-dimensional structure that makes it a strong and resilient. There are actually 28 different types of collagen throughout the body, each of which has a slightly different structure to match its various functions in body.
Okay, now that we’re all up to speed, let’s get into the claims.
Whenever a new product comes on the scene, I always live by two rules when deciding if it is worth my time and more importantly, my hard-earned cash monies - and if you walk away from this article with nothing else, I hope it is this:
1. If the health claims are too good to be true, they probably are -- Companies that make outrageous health claims always deserve an extra level of scrutiny. Thinking logically, if something were THAT effective for treating anything, wouldn’t it be used in hospitals and recommended by your doctor? Or at the very least, wouldn’t it be peddled by pharmaceutical companies? If it isn’t, then that’s a sign that it might not be that effective.
2. If someone cites research, read it -- Let me repeat that so that it really sinks in. If. Someone. Cites. Research. READ IT. And I’m not saying read every paper line by line from start to finish (though bonus points if you do), but at least click on the link and give it a quick scan through. They could be popping a citation for a cute cat video for all you know. Or more likely, the citation is for some other idiot’s blog post. If you’re going to give someone your money, make sure they aren’t jerking you around with garbage evidence.
The majority of the health claims made by collagen companies and promoters hinge upon two assumptions. First, that the collagen you eat replaces the collagen you lose due to aging, sun damage, et cetera, and second that consuming collagen causes your body to make more of its own natural collagen.
Let’s be logical and discuss the first assumption first.
Vital Proteins, Bulletproof, and Ancient Nutrition all lean heavily into the idea that not only can their supplements replace the collagen lost due to aging, but that your sagging skin and aching joints might be caused by not consuming collagen in the first place. Vital Protein states on their web page that they provide “nourishing collagen…an essential nutrient stripped from our diets by modern food-processing”. You will find similar statements on the Ancient Nutrition website: “Many people’s collagen is breaking down at an accelerated rate… and it’s not being replaced in the standard modern diet”. And again on the BulletProof website: “Bullet proof contains essential amino acids often missing in a modern diet”.
This is a problematic statement because collagen not only isn’t an essential nutrient, it isn’t a “nutrient” at all. If you were to chow down on cartilage and skin tissue tacos tonight for dinner that collagen meal would be broken down into individual amino acids and fat -- and those are nutrients. For comparison, if you ate an orange, the orange wouldn’t be the nutrient, the protein, fiber, and vitamin C in the orange are the nutrients. And farther, an essential nutrient is one that your body can’t create on its own and thus needs to be present in your diet in order for you to continue to live and function. But our bodies make all the collagen we need, thus it cannot be essential. Bulletproof’s claim above is doubly ridiculous because if there actually were “essential amino acids” missing in the modern diet, we’d all be dead.
Now you might be thinking “Natalie, why are you squabbling about semantics, you know what they were trying to say” right about now. But semantics are important because when it comes to health claims, the words you use can be incredibly persuasive. With statements like these, collagen companies are implying that your diet is deficient and that you might not be healthy if you don’t use their supplement. That is not science. That is marketing. If they can convince you that collagen is a “nutrient” then they can argue that it needs replenishment with their product.
Setting all this all aside, the collagen you eat does not automatically turn into collagen in your body. That’s not how digestion works.
Collagen is a unique protein that can make your face look young and protect your joints because of its unique protein structure – the way the amino acids arrange themselves in three-dimensional space. However, when you consume collagen, or any protein food for that matter, the protein structure is completely broken down into individual amino acids and the structure that gives it its function is lost. So any function that collagen had becomes ineffective when it is broken down into its parts by the stomach and small intestine.
Now these supplement companies aren’t stupid. They know that most of their potential customers have probably taken a biology class before, so they even describe that their product is fully broken down by digestion on their websites. They even take it a step farther and say that because collagen powders are hydrolyzed (or the protein structure is already broken down) that it improves absorption. What they fail to mention is that once amino acids are absorbed, they are dispersed throughout the body to build a variety of different proteins, not just collagen. Consuming an amino acid profile that is identical to collagen won’t magically recombine to form collagen on the other side.
And this brings me to the second statemtent that all of these companies make to justify their claims: that consuming collagen kicks your body’s production of it’s own natural collagen into high gear.
Collagen synthesis can’t just continue endlessly so long as the right building blocks are present otherwise our tissues would be bursting with excess collagen and we would probably die. Collagen production is regulated in the body so that we make just the right amount, and once we do, our body puts the breaks on the whole process. Because of this, I would assume this stimulatory effect could be caused by a potential cell signaling function of the collagen protein. This is because some component of the collagen in the supplement would need act on something to interfere with this internal regulation leading to an increase in production… but since all of the collagen proteins are conveniently already hydrolyzed “for improved digestion” they would have already lost their functional structure. I was left to wonder where this idea was coming from? While none of the websites making this claim offered up a potential explanation as to how this might occur, all of them cited the same review paper as evidence.
So, I followed my own advice and read the damn thing. And while it was an excellent review paper, it did not support the claims these companies were making. There was only one sentence in the paper that discussed a potential stimulatory effect of collagen and it was in reference to the topical application of a collagen cream on the skin, NOT the ingestion of an oral supplement. AND when I looked up the papers THAT paper was citing as evidence for this one measily sentence, I found that this idea was supported by one small-scale rat study and one in vitro study where they dripped collagen directly onto tissue cells in a petri dish. These are both weak forms of evidence for claim that topically applied collagen stimulates collagen production… and does not AT ALL support the efficacy of oral collagen supplements. And this is why you always read the articles being cited.
From a consumer perspective, what I’ve reviewed so far would be enough for me to dismiss collagen supplements as the newest, trendiest offering from your friendly neighborhood snake oil salesman. In my view, if the premises that all of their health claims hinge upon is 1. not supported by evidence and 2. not physically possible, then there really is no need to look into the evidence that they cite for each of their outrageous health claims.
…. But when I dug into the science a bit, man oh man did I uncover a raging dumpster fire of garbage research studies. These studies are perfect examples of the tricks industries use conduct and manipulate research as a marketing tactic to deceive the public into buying ineffective or in some cases harmful products. So in the next installment, we’ll review some of the interventional studies that collagen companies use to support their claims as a way to illustrate why there are so many contradictory recommendations promoted in the health and wellness sphere.
For those who want to read that lovely review paper:
Ruta Ganceviciene, Aikaterini I. Liakou, Athanasios Theodoridis, Evgenia Makrantonaki & Christos C. Zouboulis(2012)Skin anti-aging strategies,Dermato-Endocrinology,4:3,308-319,DOI:10.4161/derm.22804