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Do Collagen Supplements Work? Part Two of a Three-Part Collagen Series

Updated: Jan 21


Collagen is such a hot topic that I don't even get the question "do collagen supplements work?" Instead, people jump straight to "what's the best collagen supplement to take?" Brands have created such certainty through their crafty marketing leading consumers to believe that collagen is the magic bullet that will alleviate joint pain and help skin look younger. But does research support the marketing claims?


As a woman approaching the big 5-0 🥳, I also wanted to know—do collagen supplements help achy joints, prevent wrinkles, and preserve bones? We're about to dive in, BUT, before we talk all things supplementation, we need to address how to prevent collagen breakdown and support it naturally through diet and lifestyle. The most effective way to preserve joints, skin, and bone health is by adding more plant-based foods to your plate in addition to following some healthy lifestyle habits. So, before you move into supplementation visit Part One: How to Build Collagen Naturally.



Collagen Claims


Brands selling collagen supplements claim to help with leaky gut, support the immune system, prevent aging skin, balance hormones and relieve joint pain. Some brands almost seem too good to be true by claiming their product can reduce visible wrinkles and "plump" skin. This was the case for one company that stated their product can "drench and hydrate the skin," "reduces wrinkles," and "plump and fill out fine lines." The UK Advertising Standards Authority cited this company for miscommunication of claims that were not supported by their research. The company presented two research studies that were conducted using their product. One of the research studies was poorly designed and the other didn't show anti-aging or wrinkle-preventing effects despite claims they said came from that study. The company had to remove all claims from their website as a result.


Collagen is often sold as collagen peptide powders, capsules, or liquid. According to projections by Nutrition Business Journal, collagen supplement sales in the U.S. were predicted to reach $298 million in 2020—up from $73 million in 2015. In addition to the supplemental forms mentioned above, collagen is now being added as a functional ingredient to a variety of foods and beverages, including protein bars, teas, coffee creamers, and baked goods. Some collagen brands are even collaborating with food bloggers to create collagen cookbooks, promoting the addition of collagen powder to everything from smoothies to desserts to tacos.


Did I mention that it's a hot trend?


How collagen supplements work


We know that lifestyle factors and what you eat matter most when it comes to supporting collagen. Avoiding excess sugar, processed foods, fried foods and inflammatory foods while eating foods that are anti-inflammatory with all of the collagen-building constituents will help the body preserve and build collagen. Getting a little sun, but not too much, plays a big role. Not smoking or consuming excessive alcohol are also two important factors. So, if you're following all of those guidelines, will taking collagen supplements translate to more collagen production in your body?


Collagen supplements are in the form of peptides (also called hydrolysates), or smaller portions of collagen protein, that are easily absorbed. Collagen peptides have three important roles in supporting collagen. First, they serve as the building blocks for collagen production and other proteins in the body. Second, they also bind to the receptors on the fibroblasts that produce collagen and stimulate collagen production. Third, the peptides function as antioxidants, protecting existing collagen in the body from oxidative stresses that would cause it to degrade.


That said, all protein consumed, including collagen, is processed in your body the same way. It's broken down into smaller protein particles called amino acids. These amino acids are delivered to an amino acid pool where they hang out and wait to be used where the body needs them most. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and protein has many functions in the body in addition to building collagen. There's no guarantee that when you consume collagen, those amino acids from that collagen will directly build collagen in your body. For example, let's say you're taking collagen peptides for skin health then you cut yourself while in the kitchen (speaking from experience here). Your body may prioritize using that collagen for wound-healing over supporting skin health. Other ways protein or amino acids are used throughout the body include hormone, enzyme, antibody, and muscle synthesis.


Bottom line is that protein has a LOT of functions and those collagen peptides are most likely going to be used where your body needs them most.


With regard to collagen peptides acting as antioxidants, scavenging free radicals in the body, there are other foods that are antioxidant powerhouses — they're called plants! If you fill your plate with a variety of plant-based colors you'll have yourself an antioxidant extravaganza along with all of the nutrients needed to support collagen growth including vitamin C and A, two important collagen-supporting nutrients. Okay, back to the question: do collagen supplements work?


(If you want to skip the detailed essay below, the answer is maybe, but not at the expense of animals and ethics. Studies have been small. Many studies are supported by supplement companies. And many studies use more than just collagen on their subjects, like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, that also play a huge part in collagen support.)


What does the research say?


As mentioned above, collagen supplements on the market contain hydrolyzed collagen, or peptides, the more absorbable form of collagen. The collagen in supplements is sourced from cows, pig, chickens, fish, and other marine organisms. Cow collagen is promoted for skin, hair and nails. Fish collagen is primarily type 1 and also promoted for skin. Chicken collagen is primarily type III and promoted for joint health. Pig collagen is marketed for skin health. There is no research showing that any one of these are superior to the other. None of them are ethical. Research studies may use any of the above to test the effects of collagen on skin, joints, and bones.



Collagen for skin health


Collagen is a major component of the skin and plays a key role in the strength and elasticity of the skin. The collagen already present in your skin and the amount of collagen you produce naturally decline with age. Companies selling collagen supplements claim their product will create younger-looking, supple skin. What does the research say?

One study, a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial, was conducted on 120 subjects who consumed either a supplement or placebo on a daily basis for 90 days. Subjects consuming the test product had an overall significant increase in skin elasticity. Here's the catch—the supplement included fish collagen, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and "other active compounds" that supported skin elasticity. With all of those constituents, it's tough to conclude that fish collagen was what helped in this study. The authors concluded that oral supplementation with "collagen bioactive peptides combined with chondroitin sulphate, glucosamine, L-carnitine, vitamins, and minerals significantly improved skin aging and joint health." Not sure about you, but I'm seeing more than just collagen on that list of nutrients that helped.


Another study looked at 33 women from Japan between 40 and 59 years of age. Eleven of the women received a placebo, eleven received Peptan-F (collagen sourced from fish) and eleven received Peptan-P (collagen sourced from pig). They found that women who took both types of collagen had significantly greater moisture in skin after four and eight weeks of supplementation. The same group conducted another study in 106 women, looking at the quality of collagen and found a significant improvement using 10 grams of Peptan a day in the quality of skin. Of note, the company who sells Peptan supported this research. The studies are small and we don't know about the women's lifestyle or dietary habits that could have contributed to better moisture and quality of skin.


Another study looked at the effects of collagen hydrolysate on skin elasticity and moisture in sixty-nine women between the ages of 35 and 55. One group took the collagen supplement twice a day for eight weeks, while the other group took a placebo. The group that supplemented with collagen hydrolysate found a greater improvement in skin elasticity compared to the group who took the placebo, but no improvement in skin moisture was found.


I found three other small studies that showed improvements in skin after supplementation with collagen and all three of these studies were supported by the collagen companies themselves, therefore I am going to forego reviewing them.



Collagen for joint health


Collagen helps to maintain the integrity of cartilage, the tissue that protects your joints. Just like skin collagen, the collagen protecting your joints also declines with age, potentially leading to joint pain and arthritis. Researchers theorize that supplemental collagen may accumulate in cartilage and stimulate tissues to make collagen.


Some studies on collagen for joint health have shown that exercise-related joint pain was reduced among healthy volunteers or athletes. However these studies are short-term and many authors conclude that there is no evidence to support long-term benefits from collagen supplementation for exercise-induced joint pain.


As for arthritis, a 2018 systematic review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that hydrolyzed collagen supplements provided significant relief from osteoarthritis-associated pain, also in the short term. The authors noted that the quality of evidence was low, with only a few small trials available, and, again, that there was no evidence showing a benefit in the long term.


It’s important to note that much of the research available used collagen supplements that contained other ingredients instead of just pure collagen on their participants. For example, one study published used a collagen supplement that contained ingredients including vitamin C and MSM (both of which help produce collagen) and turmeric (which helps fight inflammation).



Collagen for bone loss


Collagen is the main constituent in bone mass, helping to keep bones strong and give them structure. Collagen peptides also are thought to hold potential for maintaining bone health and guarding against osteoporosis.


In lab studies, collagen peptides have been shown to stimulate osteoblasts, the cells that make new bone. But what about human studies?


One randomized control study looked at 39 postmenopausal women who were given either a combination of vitamin D and calcium or a combination of vitamin D, calcium and collagen. The women who took the latter combination had substantially less bone loss than the group that didn't taken collagen with vitamin D and calcium.


Another study looked at 131 postmenopausal women. Half of the women took 5 grams of collagen and the other half took a placebo every day for 12 months. The collagen supplemented group had significantly greater bone mineral density and better bone biomarkers, indicating more bone formation and less bone degradation.

These two small human studies suggest that collagen supplementation may help improve bone mass and prevent bone loss, however, the evidence to date is minimal.



Should you take collagen supplements?


Studies on collagen supplementation have been small and more research is needed.

Looking at the limited research, hydrolyzed collagen may improve skin elasticity, skin moisture, joint and bone health, but not at the expense of ethics and animals. As mentioned above, the collagen supplements currently available are made from cow, pig, chicken and fish collagen. Vegan collagen, made from yeast and plant-based ingredients, has been in the works for a while but direct vegan collagen has not yet come to market. (At least I have yet to see any, but if you're aware of vegan collagen on the market that is made from yeast then please let me know and I'll be sure to include it here.) There are, however, vegan collagen brands that contain collagen "supporters," or ingredients that may support collagen synthesis (keep reading for details).

Also, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t verify that collagen supplements contain what they state on the label or determine whether they’re contaminated with heavy metals, bacteria, or pesticides before they’re sold. Because heavy metals and toxins can collect in animal bones, it’s possible that animal-based collagen supplements could be a source of these compounds.


Plus, once again, the most important factors of preserving and making new collagen include a colorful array of plant-based foods and protein-rich plant-based foods, in addition to avoidance of smoking, excess sugar consumption, processed foods, and alcohol. Again, see this article to learn how plant-based foods are key in preventing collagen breakdown and forming new collagen.

vegan broth, photo credit: Organic Authority

What’s the deal with bone broth?


Bone broth is made by boiling the roasted bones and the connective tissue of animals. The long boiling time, ranging from eight to over 24 hours, draws gelatin and minerals, including calcium and phosphorus, out of the bones and into the broth. Some recipes include vegetables such as carrots, onions, and celery. Once cooked, the liquid is strained and the bone broth may be further seasoned.


Bone broth is praised for its “unique” nutritional profile that includes protein (plenty of plant foods high in protein), calcium (hello kale!), phosphorus (abundant in almost everything), potassium (fruits and veggies, hi!), and magnesium (two words—dark chocolate). Sorry for the sarcasm, but it turns out that bone broth is not actually that unique after all.

That said, it's important to look at all sides of every story. What does the research say?

One study analyzed bone broth and found that it was not an especially good source of calcium or magnesium. It seems that the vegetables used in the bone broth are actually providing the minerals that get the publicity. For comparison, one cup of cooked kale provides twice as much calcium as bone broth (not to mention, over 200 percent of vitamin A and 130 percent of vitamin C, plus 10 percent of copper — all nutrients needed for building collagen). And, 6-9 grams of protein per cup of broth isn’t providing much more than a cup of oatmeal, an ounce of almonds or three ounces of tofu.

But, what about the actual collagen that is drawn from the bones and connective tissue?

There isn’t any research showing that collagen from the bone broth is used for collagen in our bodies when we consume it since collagen is not absorbed in its whole form. Instead, we break the collagen down into amino acids then they move onto the amino pool just like every other protein food that we eat. There is that research I mentioned showing that hydrolyzed collagen may be effective in joint and skin health. Bone broth is not hydrolyzed collagen.

Turns out that bone broth really isn’t that special. Also, of note, bones can store heavy metals, particularly lead. In 2013, UK scientists conducted a small study looking at the lead content of bone broth made from chicken bones. The broth contained over 10 times more lead than the water alone. While a small amount of lead may not cause major damage, consistent consumption of bone broth may lead to lead accumulation in the body. Why does that matter?

This statement is from the CDC:

"Exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage. Very high lead exposure can cause death. Lead can cross the placental barrier, which means pregnant women who are exposed to lead also expose their unborn child. Lead can damage a developing baby's nervous system."


What's more, many bone broth brands come from the bones of animals raised in factory farms. These animals may have never seen the sun or a blade of grass in their lives. They were fed an unnatural diet and pumped full of hormones and antibiotics—probably not things you want in your bone broth.

What about vegan collagen?


There has been an ongoing effort to produce collagen from yeast and from plant sources, but these are not yet readily available to consumers.


While direct vegan collagen is not yet available, there are lots of vegan collagen "supporters" available on the market.


Looking at the vegan collagen supplement labels, many of them contain a variety of greens like kale, spinach and spirulina, vitamin C from some sort of polyphenol-rich fruit like pomegranate or amla (Indian gooseberries), and protein from pea or rice. Umm ... hello, food! You can get all of these things through diet alone. There are a few vegan collagen supplements that contain ingredients you may not be getting from diet such as tremella mushroom and bamboo extract. They also may contain plant-based sources of hyaluronic acid, which naturally declines as we age.

Let's look at some of these individually...



Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid is naturally produced in our body with the largest amount in the skin, eyes, and connective tissue. While hyaluronic acid doesn't play a direct role in collagen synthesis, it hydrates and retains collagen by holding onto water. Its main function is to retain water to keep your tissues moist and lubricated. As we age, we lose a significant amount of natural hyaluronic acid. If you’re a natural cruelty-free, vegan skincare junkie (hands raised here!) you’ve seen (and used) it in plenty of topical skincare products with claims to boost skin’s hydration. But what about when taken orally? Some studies have shown that oral supplementation can boost the moisture in the skin, decrease pain associated with osteoarthritis, and speed wound healing. Doses have ranged from 120-240 mg a day for skin health and 80-200 mg a day for joint health. It’s generally safe, but women who are pregnant and people with cancer should avoid taking it (yikes, some studies show that supplemental hyaluronic acid can feed cancer).


Not to sound like a broken record, but a food-first approach is always best (especially with those preliminary cancer studies).


Good whole food plant-based sources of hyaluronic acid include tofu, tempeh, edamame, leafy greens, citrus fruits, sweet potatoes, and jicama. Note, these foods also contain the building blocks for collagen including protein, vitamin C, vitamin A, and copper. Brilliant!



Bamboo


Bamboo is another ingredient that is sometimes found in vegan collagen supporter supplements. There really isn’t any direct research supporting oral ingestion of bamboo for collagen building, however there are some studies showing reduced skin inflammation in mice (sorry little mice). Manufacturers who add bamboo for topical skin treatment claim it’s the vegan version of retinol, but I did not find studies to support that. Future Kind, a vegan supplement company states this on their website:


"Bamboo is a natural source of silica. An in vitro study found that silica appears to help protect cells from light induced damage, which may help protect our skin."


It's true that bamboo naturally contains silica, an element that plays a role in collagen synthesis. Silica does not have an RDA like other essential nutrients and little data exists on its safety limits. It's naturally found in leafy greens and whole grains in addition to the bamboo. Some studies show that silica may support collagen synthesis in both skin and hair but research is very limited.

Tremella Mushroom, photo credit: Ultimate Mushroom Library

Tremella Mushroom

Tremella mushroom has been used by women in China and Japan for centuries because of its apparent ability to improve the appearance of skin. It comes with many different names including “beauty mushroom,” “snow mushroom,” and “white jelly leaf.” It’s actually a quite beautiful white fungi that grows on trees and has a gooey gelatinous-like texture (see pretty photo above). Similar to hyaluronic acid, it can hold water, in fact, up to 1000 times in its weight. Apparently, it can penetrate the skin more easily, and attract and bind water molecules, improving hydration and elasticity of the skin. I mean, mushrooms in general are pretty magical in their ability to support overall health, so why not, right?

photo credit: Speciality Produce

Turns out that tremella has some promising research to support its ability to heal, but I didn’t find much on collagen. There is one study in rats (so sorry, rats, one day there will be no testing on you) showing that tremella lowered cholesterol levels. Another study showed that it may be neuroprotective and prevent age-related neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. A review of the literature reports that the polysaccharides (carbohydrate) in tremella have bioactive traits that can prevent cancer, support the immune system, act as an antioxidant, improve cognition and memory, reduce inflammation and lower cholesterol. I don’t know about you, but knowing that mushrooms in general are powerful foods and since tremella mushrooms are not a staple in most diets, I’m game for trying a supplement that contains tremella.

Should you take a vegan collagen supporter?

If you feel that getting a boost of greens and fruits, plus tremella mushroom, would be a nice complement to your diet then look for a vegan collagen supplement that contains whole foods (greens, fruits and tremella) without fillers and artificial flavors or sweeteners. Always, with any supplement, look for third-party testing. This ensures that you're actually getting what's stated on the nutrition label and also ensures that you're not getting a daily dose of toxic heavy metals. Take it one step further and choose organic whenever possible (because what's the sense of going through all this trouble and spending your hard-earned dollars on supplements only to put pesticides into your body?). Adding a scoop to a smoothie or oatmeal daily or a few times a week could potentially complement your already plant-abundant diet.


Potential risks

Unless you have a mushroom allergy (oh, hey, mom!), there shouldn’t be any harmful effects of taking a vegan collagen supplement with tremella. The protein used in vegan collagens can be from peas, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds or rice, to name a few. Of note, rice comes with arsenic. Enjoying rice one or two times a week shouldn’t be an issue but taking a supplement that contains rice protein and potentially arsenic daily might not be in your best interest. Again, look for the third-party testing. They may mention testing for arsenic. If they do test and if the supplement contains low levels then it may be safe.



To Supplement with Collagen or To Not Supplement with Collagen?


A review on nutrition and aging concluded that fruits and vegetables are the safest and healthiest approach to boosting skin health. It's important to remember that, while new trends can be easily convincing, consistently eating a whole food plant-based diet, including a variety of antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds will give you the biggest and safest bang for your buck when trying to prevent signs of aging, whether it’s skin, joints, or bones.


Collagen supplements need more research to support their brand's claims. As they stand now, they're not ethical or kind and they may come with harmful heavy metals and other toxics stored in animal bones. Vegan collagen may be a safer bet, if and when it arrives to the market. But, it too will need research to support any claims. Vegan collagen "supporters" could be a good choice when the ingredients include dried vegetables and fruit. Of course, these supplements should complement a whole food plant-based diet and not be your sole source of plants. Always look for third party testing and always use a food-first approach.


There are so many compounds in whole plant-based foods that work synergistically including vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber. Eating the whole food should be your first approach to supporting collagen synthesis and preventing collagen breakdown. Use a whole-food based vegan collagen supplement to complement your healthy diet and lifestyle rather than using it as your only approach to caring for skin, joints, and bones. Below are a few supplements that I would recommend if you wanted to support collagen synthesis alongside your plant-based diet.


1. Rae Vegan Collagen Boost (capsules or powder)



Ingredients

vitamin C, glycine, lysine, proline, inulin (prebiotic), bamboo


Pros

  • women-led

  • socially conscious (They donate 5% of all revenues to Girls Inc, the non-profit organization that inspires girls to be strong, smart and bold through direct service and advocacy.)

  • affordable

  • follow Good Manufacturing Practices

  • I don't see third-party testing on their website, however they state, "We test every batch of our products for microbes, heavy metals and gluten, and we perform periodic tests for pesticides and other contaminants, to confirm that every product meets our standards. Testing is performed by third-party, ISO-accredited laboratories."


Other

non-GMO, gluten-free, preservative-free


Cost

$12-15 for a one-month supply


2. Mary Ruth Collagen Boosting Gummies (chewable vegan gummies)



Ingredients

vitamin C, vitamin A, lysine, amla berry extract


Pros

  • family owned

  • non-GMO

  • chewable watermelon flavor

  • follows Good Manufacturing Practices

  • third-party tested

Cost

$25.95 for 1-3 month supply (comes in 90 count and 1-3 gummies are recommended a day). Use discount code Nicholedr10 for 10% off your purchase!


Other

non-GMO, gluten-free


3. Future Kind+ Vegan Collagen Booster (capsules)



Ingredients

vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, folate (as folic acid), pantothenic acid (B vitamin), silica, biotin, zinc, glycine, lysine, proline, amla berry extract, resveratrol, grape seed extract, aloe vera, bioperine (compound from black pepper).


Pros

  • follows Good Manufacturing Practices

  • third-party tested

  • glass bottle

  • recycled packaging

  • carbon neutral company

Cost

$29.74 for one-month supply




Ingredients (all organic)

fermented pea protein, fermented brown rice peptides, sea buckthorn berry, tremella mushroom extract, kale, spinach, amla, hyaluronic acid, silica from bamboo, spirulina, biotin from holy basil, dutch cocoa, chocolate flavor, guar gum, sea salt, stevia, marine algae


(Ingredients above provide vitamin C, vitamin A, copper, biotin, silica, glycine, proline, hyaluronic acid


Pros

  • organic

  • non-GMO verified

  • easy to blend into a smoothie

  • comes in four flavors: chocolate, vanilla, salted caramel, unflavored

  • 4 grams of fiber per scoop

  • they use 100% post-consumer recycled milk cartons and are BPA-free, phthalate-free

  • follow Good Manufacturing Practices


Other

gluten-free


Cost

$34.97 for 20 servings


Coming up next to help you put it all into practice—Part Three: Collagen-Building Meal Plans!





Note: Some of the product links above may contain affiliate links. I only support ethical, plant-based and vegan products I love. The support helps me continue to write and educate about plant-based eating. Please reach out with any questions. Thank you!

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