During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), imperial consort, Yang Yuhuan was considered one of China’s four great beauties, admired for her youthful and glowing skin. Her secret? According to China Today, she regularly ate Ejiao, aka collagen derived from donkey hide. Many centuries on, the protein, found in the connective tissue and bones of animals, is still a controversial topic in the beauty world.
Collagen is a major component of skin, acting to strengthen cells and retain the skin’s natural elasticity, which decreases as we age. Serums, creams, and supplements with collagen now line the shelves at Sephora, Whole Foods, even Costco, all boasting “anti-aging” and “skin-plumping” benefits. But how effective is collagen? And do you really need to use animal-derived products to achieve its purported results?
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body. Registered dietician Kerri-Ann Jennings explains: “It’s one of the major building blocks of bones, skin, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Collagen is also found in many other body parts, including blood vessels, corneas, and teeth.”
She adds: “You can think of it as the ‘glue’ that holds all these things together. In fact, the word comes from the Greek word ‘kolla,’ which means glue.”
Collagen keeps our skin plump and wrinkle-free, but as we age, we don’t produce as much.
After the age of 30, both women and men lose around one percent of their collagen per year. According to the International Dermal Institute, for women, this escalates during menopause. During the first five years, up to 30 percent of the female body’s collagen can be lost. After that, the loss slows down to around 2 percent per year.
Dermatologist Whitney Bowe told WebMD: “As we get older, we break [collagen] down faster than we can replace it.”
This is why collagen supplements have become such a buzz ingredient in the beauty industry. Many believe that taking the protein from the connective tissue of other animals, like chickens and pigs, can help improve skin elasticity and reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles.
In 2020, collagen is still hailed by some as a fountain of youth. It’s not just for the elite, and it’s not just used in China, it’s global. In fact, the collagen market is expected to reach $7.5 billion USD by 2025.
Are Collagen Supplements Safe?
There are studies, like this one conducted in 2014 and this one from 2019, that do support claims that collagen supplements can help improve skin elasticity. But some experts are still wary, due to other potential health risks. Ground-up animal parts can contain contaminants and heavy metals.
Mark Moyad, director of the University of Michigan Medical Center’s complementary and alternative medicine program, told WebMD: “I think the elephant in the room here is safety.” He added: “We are talking about ground-up fish, chicken, pig, and cow parts, and these parts tend to act as sponges for contaminants and heavy metals.”
Last year, one study by ConsumerLab, a supplement testing company, tested 14 collagen supplements. One of those supplements had high levels of cadmium. The heavy metal is harmful to humans; long-term exposure may even lead to cancer and organ system toxicity.
A white paper report, published by the Organic Consumers Association and non-profit the Clean Label Project, tested 30 collagen products, all of which were available to purchase through Amazon. It found that 34 percent had trace levels of mercury, 37 percent were positive for lead, and 17 percent tested positive for cadmium.
The report found that four of the products tested did not meet standards relating to maximum heavy metal limits. Due to its lack of peer review, the Collagen Stewardship Alliance disputed the paper’s findings, but a spokesperson told Nutrition Insight that collagen supplements exceeding maximum limits was “clearly unacceptable.”
“When it comes to heavy metals, lots of products tested look great,” a spokesperson for the Clean Label Project said. “Some products don’t – this is important information for consumers of any food products, but especially those consumers whose health concerns drive their buying decisions around supplements.”
Can You Get Collagen From Bone Broth?
Not everyone consumes collagen in supplement form. Many years after Yuhuan’s time, renowned Chinese playwright Bai Pu (who lived between 1226 and 1306) wrote about the perceived benefits of a bowl of donkey collagen. He wrote: “A bowl of ejiao and a cup of sesame; cheeks pink and lips red; the young have zest and the old are in health.”
Ejiao is still consumed across China, often in stew or soup. The dish has been widely criticized for fuelling an industry that could potentially see half the global donkey population slaughtered in the next four years.
But simmering animal bones isn’t exclusive to China. While most ejiao is consumed in the East, bone broth is becoming an increasingly popular dish in the West. The stew is made by simmering the connective tissue and bones of animals, often pigs, chickens, or cows. As with ejiao, many believe the collagen in bone broth will promote health and wellness.
But Kamal Patel of Examine, a scientific group that investigates nutritional claims about food and supplements, says it’s unlikely you’ll get any form of collagen-related benefit from eating it. He told Mother Jones: “You’d have to eat a whole lot of bone broth to get as much collagen as is in supplements.”
Going one step further, heart surgeon Steven Gundry says that eating bone broth for collagen is pretty much pointless. He told the Huffington Post: “Your body doesn’t have a system that says if you eat collagen, or any other complex protein, that you will remake that particular protein on the other side of the intestinal wall.”
He added: “Sure, you’ll have the building blocks to make collagen, but you could do that by ingesting foods or supplements high in proline or lysine, the two main amino acids in collagen.”
Where Does Vegan Collagen Come From?
Collagen comes from animals, so by its very nature, it isn’t vegan. But scientists have figured out a way to make a genetically-engineered animal-free version.
Registered dietician Ana Reisdorf explains: “Instead of being sourced from animals, collagen can now be made by using genetically modified yeast and bacteria. Researchers have found that the bacteria P. pastoris, in particular, is the most effective and commonly used for genetically engineering high-quality collagen.”
This may be a while away from going mainstream, but much more easily found on the market is a vegan collagen builder or booster. Basically, the theory is that, due to their vitamin and mineral content, these products will help stimulate collagen production in the body.
“These boosters contain various vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C and zinc that the body needs to make collagen,” Reisdorf notes. If you want to try out a vegan collagen booster, here are five brands to look into.
Where to Buy Vegan Collagen Boosters: 5 Brands
Raw Beauty Lab
London-based Raw Beauty Lab claims to offer the UK’s number one vegan collagen superfood. It’s made with antioxidant-rich ingredients, including strawberry, beetroot, carrot, and baobab powders. The brand says you’ll see “visible results” after just 28 days of consuming this natural plant-based collagen builder. Check it out here.
Alicia Silverstone has contributed many great things to this world. The first being her portrayal of Cher in 90s classic Clueless, and the second is, arguably, this Organic Plant Collagen Builder from her brand Mykind Organics.
The vegan certified organic tablets contain more than 30 powdered fruits, vegetables, and botanicals. All will help promote “your body’s healthy, natural glow.” Check it out here.
Vegavero’s Vegan Collagen Complex contains high-quality extracts from a number of plants, including rosehip, ginseng, tomato, and pomegranate. It also contains lysine and proline, the “basic building blocks for the synthesis of collagen.” Check it out here.
Future Kind operates on the principle that “your own collagen is the best collagen.”
With 16 vitamins and potent herbal ingredients, the brand designed its Vegan Collagen Booster to rejuvenate your skin, nails, joints, and hair. Check it out here.
Made with organic aloe vera, Ora Organic’s Vegan Collagen Booster powder contains a magic mix of protein, silica, vitamin C, and vitamin E. It tastes delicious too, thanks to the organic coconut sugar, organic coconut milk, and natural vanilla flavor. Add a scoop to your next smoothie, shake, or even coffee – you won’t taste the difference, but your skin may thank you. Check it out here.
If you don’t want to try a supplement, don’t worry. Reisdorf notes that you can get the same vitamins and minerals through a healthy balanced diet.
“You can add these vitamins and minerals through your diet, instead of a supplement, to help you meet your amino acid needs,” she explains. “The most abundant amino acids in collagen are glycine, lysine, and proline.”
Kantha Shelke, food scientist and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists, also recommends a healthy diet for collagen stimulation. She told NPR: “Eating a diet rich in leafy green vegetables is ideal. Plants offer richer sources in collagen building blocks and, in addition, provide nutrients not found in sufficient quantities in meats or broth.”
So, whether you decide to try a vegan supplement, or you choose to follow a healthy plant-based diet, it seems you can boost your body’s own collagen. No animal bones needed.
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