Dewy skin, improved skin elasticity and firmness, and support for strong and flexible ligaments and tendons are just some of the benefits promised by makers of collagen supplements and snacks.
The popularity of this wellness ingredient has been helped along by celebrities Jennifer Aniston and Khloe Kardashian who both endorse collagen product ranges.
And although collagen supplements have been around for quite a while, collagen has more recently popped up as an ingredient in foods and drinks. These include 'creamers' to add to coffee and tea (both Aniston and Kardashian's ranges include them) and snack bars and smoothies that you can buy in the supermarket.
A booming industry
It's no wonder the global collagen supplement market is booming – industry reports value it at more than US$1.8 billion in 2019, and it's projected to reach US$3 billion by 2027, an average yearly growth rate of 6.9%.
But is the secret to a younger-looking and more supple you really as simple as popping a pill or eating collagen-enriched foods?
Collagen supplements can be taken on their own or mixed into drinks, sprinkled on foods or made into meal-replacement shakes.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a protein made in your body, and is the main structural component of its connective tissues including skin, bone, cartilage, tendons and ligaments. It acts a bit like glue to help maintain your body's integrity, shape and strength.
It's continuously broken down and renewed, but as you age your collagen production slows, and these connective tissues lose elasticity and become more brittle. This presents outwardly as signs of aging, including fine lines, wrinkles and thinning hair. A decline in collagen levels can also begin to limit your flexibility and range of movement.
As you age your collagen production slows… this presents outwardly as signs of aging, including fine lines, wrinkles and thinning hair
Few of us enjoy these reminders of a gradually deteriorating body, which is why the promise of slowing, stopping or even reversing this by popping a few collagen pills or eating the occasional collagen-enriched food holds such appeal.
Using collagen isn't new
Nicole Dynan, accredited practising dietitian and media spokesperson for Dietitians Australia says, "Using collagen to fight the signs of aging isn't anything new – and it has been used in topical creams for a number of years.
"But as we become more conscious about our health, this has boosted the popularity of beauty and anti-aging supplements, such as ingestible collagen."
What are collagen supplements?
Collagen supplements are available as pills, gummies, liquids and powders that can be taken on their own or mixed into drinks, sprinkled on foods or made into meal-replacement shakes, depending on the format.
The collagen in supplements (and added to food products) is mostly derived from cows (bovine), pigs (porcine), or fish (marine), and is often in the form of collagen peptides (short strings of amino acids, the building blocks of protein).
In theory, taking collagen supplements contributes to collagen reserves in your body, thereby improving the health of your skin and joints.
Do collagen supplements work?
Collagen has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine, but evidence-based research into its benefits is in short supply.
Tendons and ligaments
Focusing on benefits for tendons and ligaments, a small study looking at the use of supplemental collagen by athletes with Achilles tendon injury – which was sponsored by a manufacturer of collagen supplements – found it helped in their recovery.
On skin health, a 2019 systematic review of 11 studies with a total of 805 patients found that taking daily collagen supplements of between 2.5g and 10g showed promising results for skin ageing, and could help improve skin elasticity and hydration, with no adverse effects.
But the supplement types and dosages used differed across trials, making it hard to compare the results. And it's worth noting that the supplements sometimes contained other beneficial ingredients (such as vitamin C), so it's likely that collagen isn't acting alone.
Dr Adrian Lim, practising dermatologist and fellow of the Australasian College of Dermatologists, says, "Right now there is still insufficient evidence to say that the skin will be visibly improved after a period of collagen supplementation.
"However, there are emerging studies demonstrating microscopic improvement in skin quality that is measurable but may or may not be clinically noticeable (studies are curiously lacking or lagging in this area)."
How much collagen – and is it safe?
With concrete evidence still lacking on the benefits of supplementation, it's tricky to say how much collagen would be helpful, if any.
"Although there are a handful of studies showing promising results, there is not yet enough information on the optimal dosage and type of collagen people could ingest for skin and anti-ageing benefits," Dynan warns.
But although the benefits may not be clear, the amounts you'd consume if you were to take supplements according to recommended doses, or eat collagen-enriched food products, are unlikely to cause you any harm.
"The literature suggests that 2.5–15g per day is safe for supplementation," says Lim.
Eat your way to healthy skin, hair, nails and joints
Crucially, you don't need to take supplements or eat special collagen-containing foods to build up your collagen levels.
"Collagen can be synthesised in the body from ingested proteins and nutrients through a balanced diet," says Lim.
The bottom line is to eat a varied, healthy diet, as this will provide enough nutrients to naturally boost collagen productionNicole Dynan, accredited practising dietitian
And the advantage of consuming collagen in food, rather than in a supplement, is that you're also gaining the other nutrients already in the food (such as vitamins, minerals, fibre and different proteins).
"The bottom line is to eat a varied, healthy diet, as this will provide enough nutrients to naturally boost collagen production – plus give us a myriad of other health benefits," says Dynan.
How to boost your collagen naturally
- whole foods from the five food groups, which are packed with nutrients – fruit and vegies, whole grains, dairy foods, lean meats, nuts, seeds and legumes – for overall good health
- foods high in protein such as lean meat, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes, lentils and tofu. Choosing a range of protein sources throughout your day can help your body produce collagen
- foods rich in vitamin C (such as broccoli, sprouts, blackcurrants and citrus fruits) and copper (nuts, seeds, organ meats, also known as offal, and seafood). These nutrients in particular are essential to the body's collagen production.
- Ultra-processed and packaged foods that contain little or no nutrients. Not only are they lacking in nutrients, but the cost of processing also tends to be passed on to you, the consumer. You'd be better off spending that money on fresh fruit and veg instead.
When you buy processed food products for the added collagen, you're often getting high amounts of less desirable nutrients too.
Aussie Bodies Collagen Coconut Cream Delight (45g)
- Price: $3.75
- Contains 4.1g collagen peptides
- Benefit claims: "Help your body shine from the inside out"
- 9% saturated fat
Go Natural Beauty Collagen Snap Bar (40g)
- Price: $3
- Contains 2.5g collagen peptides
- Benefit claims: "Envy-worthy skin, hair and nails"
- 5.1% saturated fat
Dose & Co Dairy-Free Collagen Creamer Vanilla (340g)
- Price: $51.99 ($3.06 per 20g serve)
- Contains 10g collagen per serve
- Benefit claims: "Supports joints, hair, skin and nails", "Supports a healthy gut"
- 20.2% saturated fat
Is collagen vegetarian or vegan?
The collagen used in supplements (and being added to food products) is usually derived from animals, so isn't suitable for many vegetarians (depending on how strict they are) or vegans.
Genetically engineered collagen derived from yeast – which can technically be described as vegetarian or vegan – has been developed, but is currently limited to medical settings.
Genetically engineered collagen ... is currently limited to medical settings
Vegetarian and vegan 'collagen booster' products, which contain plant-based collagen growth stimulants, are more widely available. But there's little evidence that they would have the same potential benefits as animal-derived collagen.
But if you're vegetarian or vegan, don't despair: your body can still make collagen if you don't eat animal products (or pop collagen supplements, for that matter). Eating a variety of plant proteins – such as legumes, soy and quinoa – will give you all the essential amino acids your body needs to build collagen.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.