Collagen. It’s inextricably linked to the beauty industry, conjuring imagery of sipping broths made from bones and using fine line-fighting injections — but it’s so much more than that. Collagen’s benefits for the body are numerous. And while it’s not vegan, there are ways to boost the body’s collagen production with plant-based food. But first, what is collagen made from? And can it be vegan?
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body, accounting for a third of its protein composition. It’s in your bones, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and skin. Collagen makes skin elastic and provides structural support for the body. Studies show that collagen has additional health benefits like improving skin, hair, and nails, preventing bone loss, relieving joint pain, boosting muscle mass, and promoting brain health.
The human body makes its own collagen but production slows down with age, which is why skin sags and joints start to break down.
What Is Collagen Made From?
Collagen is a protein made from amino acids, specifically glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and arginine, according to Medical News. Collagen peptide supplements are typically derived from bovine connective tissue or fish, from marine collagen.
Are Collagen Supplements Vegan?
Some people take collagen peptides as a supplement to counteract its deterioration. Conventional collagen supplements are not vegan. Vegan versions exist but they are not yet accessible to mainstream consumers. Whether or not vegan collagen supplements would be effective once they’re more readily available is another story.
“Like most marketing for supplements, the industry is banking on a perceived problem and certainly wouldn’t want ‘eating better’ to be the solution. That doesn’t make for sales,” Susan Levin, MS, RD, Director of Nutrition Education at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, tells LIVEKINDLY in an email
But supplements may have a place elsewhere: “For some medical conditions like wound healing (bedsores, burns, etc.), a vegan collagen supplement might be a good idea.”
Vegan collagen is still in its early years. Geltor, a San Leandro tech startup, is making animal-free collagen peptides using microbial fermentation. Geltor’s vegan collagen peptide is identical to the animal-based type, but it can also be tailored to different functional properties, such as different amino acid profiles, per Food Navigator.
Geltor’s vegan collagen will be available for both the food and beauty industries. It won the “Innovation of the Year” award at the 2018 CEW Beauty Awards for its first commercially available product, N-Collage. It recently raised $18.2 million to launch vegan collagen for the food industry in 2020. But it may not be in the form of a collagen-boosting supplement. The company is particularly interested in using it to replace gelatin (an ingredient derived from collagen), which is traditionally used in gummy candy.
What About Bone Broth?
Bone broth’s popularity has risen in recent years, with advocates claiming that it helps boost the body’s collagen production. However, research shows that the concoction of simmered animal bones and ligaments may not be effective as claims say. Vegan bone broth is made from ingredients with collagen-boosting properties and could prove beneficial.
How to Boost Collagen Production on a Vegan Diet
While vegan collagen supplements may not yet be accessible to the general public, there are ways to boost collagen production. Dr. Levin recommends looking to whole food, plant-based sources first.
“When you eat adequate protein (from grains, beans, and vegetables), you are consuming the amino acids you need to form collagen,” says Dr. Levin. The amino acids most abundant in collagen are glycine, lysine, and proline. Choosing plant-based protein that contains all three can boost collagen production through diet.
“Also, eating a diet rich in antioxidants is great for the skin and collagen support – this includes vitamin C and zinc. Additionally, the old adage of avoiding sun damage can’t be overstated,” Dr. Levin adds.
Some foods may even damage collagen production. According to Healthline, refined carbs and sugar can cause inflammation and damage collagen.
1. Soy Foods
A diet rich in soy-based food can help boost collagen production. According to Health Central, genistein, an isoflavone and phytoestrogen, gives soy foods their collagen-building properties. It also helps block enzymes that break down the skin’s elasticity. Most soy-based foods contain enough genistein to boost collagen production. Options include tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soybeans, and soy-based protein powder.
Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart — and boosting collagen, according to research. Black beans, kidney beans, and others contain the necessary “ingredients” for collagen production, like amino acids and copper.
3. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are a source of healthy fat and plant-based protein. Many also contain specific nutrients that boost collagen production, like copper and zinc. Rotate between options like pumpkin seeds (there’s even pumpkin seed tofu now), sunflower seeds, chia seeds, cashews, pistachios, and peanuts. Cashews, in particular, are a popular ingredient for creamy, dairy-free sauces and cheeses, like in this recipe for pasta with cashew cream vodka sauce.
4. Leafy Greens
Never underestimate the power of eating leafy greens. Salad greens like kale, Swiss chard, spinach, and others are rich in chlorophyll. Chlorophyll has been shown to have antioxidant properties. It can neutralize free radicals, which disrupt collagen and DNA production.
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, told Glamour: “By helping wounded cells repair themselves and behave like healthy cells, ingredients that stimulate healing might also improve fine lines and wrinkles.”
5. Berries & Citrus Fruits
Both berries and citrus fruits are excellent sources of vitamin C, which studies show plays a major role in collagen production. Berries like raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries also contain antioxidants, which help protect the skin against damage. Incorporate a wide variety of citrus fruits in your diet, including oranges, grapefruit, lemon, and lime.
6. Tropical Fruit
Enjoy the occasional tropical fruit. Pineapple, kiwi, mango, and guava are also rich sources of vitamin C. According to Healthline, guava contains zinc which helps boost collagen production, too.
Love garlic? It’s more than just a flavor-booster. Registered dietitian Carrie Gabriel told Healthline: “Garlic is high in sulfur, which is a trace mineral that helps synthesize and prevent the breakdown of collagen.” But, “you probably need a lot of it to reap the collagen benefits.”
8. Tomatoes and Bell Peppers
Tomatoes and bell peppers are high in vitamin C. Each also has additional benefits. Bell peppers contain capsaicin, an anti-inflammatory compound, meaning it may help fight signs of aging. Tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant that helps protect the skin.