Vegan Collagen: A Help or a Hoax?

June 16, 2021

Vegan Collagen: A Help or a Hoax?

In this article:

  • What is collagen?
  • Traditional animal sources of collagen
  • Pros and cons of vegan collagen
  • In a nutshell

What is collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant protein in the bodies of humans and mammals. Human collagen acts as a building block to keep our connective tissues healthy, flexible, and firm. This includes our joints, ligaments, muscles, eyes, and skin. Natural collagen production is consistent until our mid-twenties. After that, production of collagen falls steadily and then plummets for women after menopause. Collagen prejuvenation is becoming more common as a way to prevent our own collagen depletion and the side effects that go along with it. No matter your age, chances are you could benefit from adding collagen to your diet!

When we consume collagen (that's right, you have to consume, not apply collagen!) it breaks down into amino acids -glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. These amino acids are then used by the body to increase collagen synthesis. In short, more collagen now means more collagen later! The health benefits of collagen are profound. Collagen supplementation has been proven to boost skin health, hydration, and skin elasticity for the prevention of wrinkle formation. It's a staple in bulletproof skincare routines, whether your goal is to improve your skin's texture or prevent fine lines from popping up in the future. It's also used to decrease joint pain, strengthen the gut, grow your hair and nails, and increase lean muscle "gains".

Traditional Animal-Sources of Collagen

Collagen is produced naturally in the human body as well as in the hides, scales, and even shell membranes of animals and fish. Bovine collagen peptides are sourced from the hides of cows. Type II collagen is sourced from chicken ligaments and tendons as well as egg shell membranes. Marine collagen is sourced from fish skin and scales. While the sources of collagen can be seen as zero-waste, making use of animal byproducts that would otherwise be discarded, they don't fit in with vegan diets or for people who are trying to reduce their consumption of animal products. We know collagen is an animal product just as much as salmon skin jerky. But this begs the question - is there an effective vegan collagen product that can serve as a substitute?

Vegan collagen supplements and vegan collagen boosters are making their way into the market, but beware, they are not necessarily equal to animal-sourced collagen. Many products claiming to be vegan collagen supplements are really collagen-building supplements that may support your body's natural collagen production but contain no collagen. These "plant collagen builders" usually contain vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, biotin, silica, lysine, antioxidants, and other minerals that all support the same benefits that an animal-based collagen supplement provides. For instance, biotin will be used to support hair and nail growth, but may not be as effective as a pure collagen supplement. Vitamin C boosts your body's natural collagen synthesis and makes collagen supplements more bioavailable, but does not actually provide your body with collagen. Antioxidants may help to fight collagen-damaging free radicals, but they can't boost collagen production alone. In short, all of the above vitamins and minerals play an important role in your body and its collagen production, but they are NOT collagen supplements. Thus the entrance of vegan collagen supplements.

Vegan collagen can now be made by using genetically engineered yeast and bacteria. Healthline nicely summarizes how this is done:

"To produce collagen, four human genes that code for collagen are added to the genetic structure of the microbes. Once the genes are in place, the yeast or bacteria then start to produce building blocks of human collagen. Pepsin, a digestive enzyme, is added to help structure the building blocks into collagen molecules with the exact [triple helix] structure of human collagen."

Unlike other dietary supplements like vegan omega-3, which is made from naturally occurring algae, vegan collagen is man-made and genetically engineered.

Pros and Cons of Vegan Collagen

So how does vegan collagen stack up to "traditional" animal-sourced collagen? Here is a quick list of pros and cons to read through before you buy.

Pros:

  • Ethical: Vegan collagen is a great ethical alternative to animal products. It does not contribute to the carbon footprint in the same way that animal products do.
  • No dietary restrictions: Vegan collagen doesn't have to be for vegans only. It can be added to your dietary supplement rotation no matter your dietary restrictions!

Cons:

  • Few studies to support: While vegan collagen supplements may "make sense" on paper, and may lead you to believe that they have similar if not equal benefits as naturally derived collagen, we were unable to track down any scientific studies to validate as much. Because the genetic make up of vegan collagen is still relatively new, studies will need to be conducted to concretely prove its efficacy after consumption.
  • Expensive: Vegan collagen just hasn't permeated the market in the same way naturally derived collagen has. That means the few brands who are producing and selling vegan collagen are able to raise prices as they see fit. Currently, true vegan collagen powders and supplements are a bit tricky to get your hands on. However, because they can be man-made, there is potential for a future price reduction.
  • Genetically modified: A good way to understand vegan vs animal-derived collagen is to look at it as Impossible™ burgers vs beef burgers. Impossible™ burgers look, taste, smell, and even have the same texture as a beef burger patty! If you're craving a burger, these plant-based patties are a satisfying alternative. But even though they do not contain meat or potential red meat concerns, many do have artificial flavors, colors, and genetically modified ingredients. Every once in a while they might be a great alternative, but we're still not sure how the body will be affected in the long run. The same is true for vegan collagen.

In a nutshell

Vegan collagen is not as common, scientifically supported, or affordable as many animal-based collagen supplements on the market. With that said, keep in mind not all animal collagen protein powders are created equally! Certain sources, such as chicken-derived collagen, are less ethical and clean than sustainably caught fish. Some supplements will hide their sources and eliminate sustainability initiatives in order to drive costs down, but this doesn't necessarily make them a better choice.

Amandean's Premium Marine Collagen powder is highly bioavailable, non-GMO, sourced from sustainably wild-caught fish, and uses the skin and scales of fish that would otherwise be discarded. It's not a veggie-based supplement, but it does give you more bang for your buck and even contributes to eliminating plastic waste. However, if you follow a strict vegan diet, this may not be for you. Vegan collagen supplements are out there but at this point, they are pricey and lack clinical research to prove their efficacy. If you can't get your hands on a vegan collagen supplement, consider taking vitamin C or other collagen-boosting vitamins and minerals to round out your diet and support your body's natural collagen production.

Summary Points

  • Human collagen acts as a building block to keep our connective tissues healthy, flexible, and firm
  • When we consume collagen it breaks down into amino acids -glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline - amino acids necessary for collagen production
  • Collagen is produced naturally in the human body as well as in the hides, scales, and even shell membranes of animals and fish
  • Many products claiming to be vegan collagen supplements are really collagen-building supplements that may support your body's natural collagen production but contain no collagen
  • Because the genetic make up of vegan collagen is still relatively new, studies will need to be conducted to concretely prove its efficacy after consumption




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