Why Collagen Isn't Vegan: Can You Replace Collagen Supplements?

June 11, 2020

Why Collagen Isn't Vegan: Can You Replace Collagen Supplements?

In this article:

  • How our bodies produce collagen
  • Collagen Sources: Animal & Plant
  • Barriers to Vegan collagen supplements
  • Boosting natural collagen production with Vitamin C
  • Synthetic (lab-grown) collagen alternatives
  • Collagen Builders vs. Collagen Boosters

As a vegan, you might already be well accustomed to exercising a lot of effort when it comes to your nutrition. Finding alternatives isn’t always an easy task. However, when it comes to collagen, that’s where things become tricky. Essentially, collagen is a protein derived from animal sources only. Over the years, we have received countless emails asking about plant-based and vegan-friendly collagen alternatives. We can assure you that the absence of this product in our product line is not for lack of trying! Let’s find out more.

In this article, we’re demystifying questions around vegan collagen by looking at the process of collagen production and its structure. As getting enough collagen can be a challenge for vegans, we also examine ways to boost collagen production when following a plant-based diet.

Collagen Structure & Production

The ability to produce collagen is a luxury we’ve been blessed with as humans, but how exactly do our bodies do this? In the most simple terms, our bodies need to break down dietary protein into amino acids. According to a study conducted by O. Shoseyov et al., collagen has always been extracted from animal sources. When it comes to collagen synthesis, a multitude of genes, associated proteins, and cofactors are required for this process to take place. The essence of this phase lies in its complex, multifaceted post-translation processing, avers throughout history. The same study also states that even the slightest deviations in gene and post-translational modifications may jeopardize the entire collagen synthesis process.

without which the actual maturation of protein would not be achieved. So, what is it that precedes the actual collagen maturation as the focal point of collagen production?

According to the aforementioned study, modifications of procollagen (a precursor of collagen) represent the crucial steps in collagen manufacturing. What’s more, yet another predominant factor is the amount and activity of the multienzyme prolyl 4-hydroxylases (P4H) complex, which has been found to boost the protein’s viability and stability. Compromised P4H activity and levels may lead to a substantial decrease in collagen secretion, and could even contribute to inherited extracellular matrix (ECM) disorders.

Can Collagen Be Vegan?

As collagen’s presence in the structure of humans and mammals has been firmly established, you may be curious about the possibility of this protein being found in flora. A study titled Human Recombinant Type I Collagen Produced in Plants confirms the presence of not only collagen, but also the enzymes necessary for its production, in certain plants. Namely, native collagen, as well as three modifying enzymes necessary for collagen maturation have been detected in a specifically recruited tobacco plant expression platform.

Theoretically speaking, plant collagen alternatives, including silkworm, bacterial, and yeast expression systems do represent an intriguing alternative to the known sources. According to the hypothesis presented in the aforementioned study, in ideal conditions, these options would be cost-effective, easily manipulable, and safe.

However, when it comes to plant sources, it has been found that these alternatives usually do not contain the necessary enzymes and co-factors crucial in the hydroxylation of the vital amino acids lysine and proline. Basically, we need more than a source of collagen in order for our bodies to utilize it. Due to the lack of disulfide bridge formation, plant-derived sources of collagen are mostly considered “unfit for expression of mature and functional collagen”. What’s more, plant-based sources of collagen don’t yet offer the cost-effectiveness of collagen from animal sources. The production of yeast expression systems, for instance, requires complex stainless steel fermentation systems and support facilities. The cost-effectiveness is low in terms of getting a container of vegan-friendly collagen onto your kitchen counter for everyday use.  

Therefore, even though a more sustainable, cost-efficient plant-based collagen is an attractive product in theory, in reality, it’s not yet viable to bring to the market. Namely, the plant-based expression seems to lack the necessary enzymatic support needed for our bodies to use it efficiently, lowering the chances of collagen molecule durability and activity. To be more specific, plant sources of collagen contain P4H, but what appears to be the issue is the lack of a stable substrate sequence specificity characteristic of mammalian P4H. Another remarkable difference between the two sources is the absence of sialic acid units and galactose in non-mammal collagen. According to a collagen review, the abundance of setbacks when it comes to plant alternative sources still make animal-sourced collagen the favorable option.

Promote Collagen Production with Vitamin C & Powerful Nutrients

Yes, animal-derived collagen is certainly the most effective, straightforward way of boosting your natural collagen production and getting the numerous health benefits of collagen. However, this doesn’t mean that as a vegan you don’t have any options. There are definite ways to improve collagen synthesis through nutrition.

Aside from the mentioned enzymes, genes, and cofactors necessary for optimal collagen production, there are other vital components of this machinery. We’ve already established that vegan collagen is not yet market viable, but vegan sources of necessary nutrients for collagen production can easily be implemented in a plant-based diet. According to an article focused on vegan collagen sources<