Sean McCaffrey, doctor of chiropractic, is an internal health specialist with post-doctoral licenses in internal and digestive health. It’s the second specialty that guides his approach to a supplement like collagen powder. After all, if you can’t digest a substance, what’s the point?
“With collagen, when you bring it in, can the body absorb it? That’s the question. And once it gets absorbed, can it be utilized and transported to where it needs to be used by the body?”
The research he’s reviewed doesn’t contain anything that’s convinced McCaffrey to recommend collagen supplements over, say, bone broth and a healthy diet.
“Everything that I’ve seen to this point, and that I’ve seen in clinic, says … hit and miss,” McCaffrey says. “More miss than hit.”
But there is a growing body of research that points, however vaguely, toward very particular health benefits associated with collagen products. According to the PubMed timeline, interest in the health benefits of pharmaceutical collagen began in the early 1990s, when researchers began to study the effects of collagen-laced bandages for wounds (they do help).
Collagen powder, on the other hand, is a form of the protein designed to be ingested, and it doesn’t appear to have entered the medical literature until the mid-1990s. One early study found that 10 grams of collagen hydrolysate per day improved the effect of the bone-strengthening drug calcitonin in women with postmenopausal osteoporosis.
That’s terrific if large-scale follow-up studies confirm the findings—and you have postmenopausal osteoporosis and a prescription for calcitonin—but it’s a far cry from the age-defying skin improvements featured in many manufacturers’ claims. Before you buy a $50 jar of a supplement, it’s important to figure out if collagen powder is worth the expense.
But before we go any further, we need to define some terms. Let’s dig into the language that producers use for their collagen-based supplements.
What exactly is collagen? What about collagen peptides, hydrolyzed collagen, and collagen powder?
Collagen is the most common protein in the human body. It’s present in skin, bones, teeth, muscles—you name it. Collagen is made of three chains of polypeptides, or strings of conjoined amino acids, which form triple-helix patterns. Animal cells produce these triple-helices, then secrete them into the extracellular regions of the body, where they bind together into collagen fibers. These fibers are tough and flexible. In other words, they give the structures of our bodies their strength and elasticity.
You can see why it makes a kind of instinctual sense that consuming collagen could improve the skin and joints, which are partially made of the substance, after all.
But what exactly goes into our collagen supplements? These products are typically marketed under three different names: collagen peptides, hydrolyzed collagen, and collagen powder.
- Collagen peptides are short chains of amino acids that have been “unstrung” from their triple-helix structure. Their low molecular weight makes them easy for the body to absorb according to manufacturers of collagen peptide products.
- Hydrolyzed collagen is just another name for collagen peptides. It refers to hydrolysis, the chemical process by which collagen helices are broken down into their constituent peptides.
- Collagen powder is the dry, fine particulate of collagen peptides, often mixed with other ingredients such as vitamin C, flavorings, or fillers. Scientists have identified at least 16 different types of collagen, although the first three are the ones typically associated with the skin, joints, and bones. That’s why most collagen powder formulas contain some blend of collagen types I, II, and/or III.
While those in the industry might use the above terms to differentiate their products from others, they essentially describe the same thing.
“You’ll see this a lot, in the supplement industry especially,” says McCaffrey. “They’ll use a catchy phrase, catchy terms, to try and make what they’re selling you look a little bit better.” The bottom line? “It’s really the exact same thing.”
Look closely at the small print on a package of collagen powder before you buy. It’s especially important considering the different sources of collagen—which brings us to our next point. Vegans and vegetarians, pay close attention.
What are collagen powder supplements made of?
Your approach to collagen supplements is probably going to be similar to your stance on Jell-O, gelatin, and other seemingly meat-free foods that are actually made of animal by-products. In fact, gelatin itself is largely comprised of collagen that isn’t fully processed into its component peptides.
In 2016, the International Food Research Journal published a comprehensive piece on the process of extracting collagen from animal sources. According to that research, most collagen supplements start out as the otherwise-unused bits of pigs and cows, although products derived from fish and poultry are also available.
But which unused bits are we talking about? Well, researchers point to a handful of specifics from cattle, including the membrane that surrounds the heart, inner skin layers, and bones. Manufacturers may start with pig skin and lungs. Fish-sourced collagen might come from skin, scales, cartilage, fins, and/or swim bladders. Many—but not all—producers of collagen powder list the source animal on the product label.
How do producers manufacture collagen powder supplements?
Once producers obtain their raw materials, they extract the collagen peptides through hydrolysis, or the breaking down of chemical bonds using water. This process typically starts with pretreatment in an acid or base chemical bath, along with plenty of washing in distilled water.
Depending on the source material, manufacturers then use an enzyme or chemical solution to further break down chemical bonds and separate out the collagen peptides. At that point, all that’s left is to throw the filtered liquid collagen solution into a centrifuge to remove the moisture. In the end, you’re left with pure collagen powder.
So, to reiterate: Vegetarians and vegans might want to steer clear of collagen supplements, just as they would products that contain gelatin. Plant cells don’t make collagen. (Okay, there is one exception, but it relies on some next-level genetic engineering and isn’t available as a powdered supplement as of this writing.)
Does research back any claims of health benefits from collagen powder supplements?
Let’s break down the two major proposed benefits of collagen powder, one at a time:
The Skin Claim
Collagen powder can improve elasticity, hydration, and reduction of wrinkles.
It makes sense, right? Collagen is the stuff your cells produce to support your skin in the first place. Aging naturally reduces your body’s production of collagen—we lose about 1 percent of our collagen production per year after age 20—which is what leads to the thin, dry, wrinkled skin that we associate with aging.
Indeed, there are some preliminary studies that seem to back up the oceans of online anecdotal support for collagen powder’s efficacy as an anti-aging supplement. One double-blind, placebo-controlled study did find improved skin elasticity in women who took a daily dose of collagen peptides. But there were only 69 subjects, and the study only lasted 12 weeks. This is a great start, but it’s a long way from establishing medical consensus.
A later study in the journal Nutrients found that collagen peptides sourced from cow bone tightened up lax, aged skin—in mice. That study was from November 2017, and as any medical researcher will tell you, it takes time to move from mice to humans when studying potential drugs. This, again, places us squarely in preliminary-study land.
In short, it is certainly possible that collagen powder can improve skin health. There just hasn’t been enough research on hydrolyzed collagen peptides to convince the healthcare industry at large.
“I have not seen enough research to validate it,” says McCaffrey. “I’ve just not seen enough behind it to validate what it does.”
The Joint Claim
Collagen powder can improve joint health and ease osteoarthritis.
Again, the logic of this claim comes from the idea that the articular cartilage found in joints is largely composed of collagen. Why wouldn’t eating collagen give your body more collagen to use in your joints?
The answer lies in your digestive tract, says McCaffrey. When we digest proteins—including collagen, whether in a slab of fish or something in supplement form—a healthy digestive system breaks them down into amino acids, which become basic building blocks for other proteins. There doesn’t appear to be a way to encourage these fundamental amino acids to form precisely the tissue that we want in precisely the preferred part of the body.
“The body will reassemble [amino acids],” McCaffrey explains. “Think of them like Legos. If I give you a bag full of Legos, and I say, ‘Hey, build me a car,’ you and 90 other little kids are all going to build different cars. It depends on where you put the red [Legos] and the blue ones, and so on. So the body can kind of selectively choose how it wants to reassemble these things into different forms of collagen.”
Even if you can digest a collagen supplement, there doesn’t appear to be a mechanism that controls the body’s use of amino acids to rebuild tissues in specific parts of the body.
To quote the conclusion of that latter study, though, “More studies are needed to confirm the clinical interest of this food supplement.”
Are there any risks associated with consuming collagen powder?
But MedlinePlus, the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s public-facing information site, lists the risks of consuming gelatin and related compounds, such as collagen powders, as “likely safe” in smaller doses and “possibly safe” in the doses recommended by many supplement manufacturers.
Barring the possibility of allergies, which are always a concern, McCaffrey doesn’t worry too much about the safety of collagen products.
“The supplement industry as a whole is pretty cautious,” McCaffrey says. “I think they tend to put things out—especially over-the-counter-type supplements…that [are] not going to hurt you. They don’t want to get sued. So when you’re putting a product out there, you make sure it’s not strong enough to hurt anything.”
The potential problem with animal-based supplements is that, well, they come from animals. Not every fish whose fins are destined for a beauty product swims the same clean waters.
“The real issue becomes where they’re getting their sources from,” McCaffrey says.
“When you’re getting your collagen, you get a lot of it from animals, and it’s gelatinous things. It’s leftover parts for the most part. [Manufacturers] aren’t sitting there with a $2,500 organic cow going after this stuff. They’re buying whatever they can get their hands on.”
There’s no way to know what an animal has been exposed to in its life, and it could be possible for contaminants to remain even in heavily processed byproducts like collagen powder.
“How was that animal fed in its life?” says McCaffrey. “Did it have hormones? Did it have this, did it have that? You can get into cross-contamination and things like that.”
Potential Side Effects of Collagen Powder Supplements
The main thing to avoid when taking collagen supplements is an allergic reaction. How do you know if you have such an allergy? Look to the source animal. If you’re allergic to chickens or eggs, avoid collagen supplements derived from poultry. If you have fish or seafood allergies, avoid collagen powders sourced from the sea.
MedlinePlus and WebMD list other potential side effects, ranging from the mild (leaving a bad taste in your mouth) to annoying (heartburn, belching), to frankly terrifying (potential contamination with animal-borne diseases—though this one is particularly unlikely, for the record).
So should you take collagen powder as a dietary supplement?
That’s up to you and your doctor. In general, though, McCaffrey says he suggests getting your proteins, including collagen, from whole-food sources.
“You see a lot of your collagen in the skins of things,” he says. “You’ll see it in chicken skins…You can find it in the gelatinous portions, but people don’t tend to eat the joints and knuckles and things like that. That’s where making the broth can be really helpful.”
Broth? That’s right. McCaffrey is a big fan of bone broth, which he says makes it easy to get plenty of collagen into any meat-eater’s diet. He also recommends preserving the collagen that’s already in your body and working against the natural loss of collagen that inevitably accompanies aging.
“Are there things that we can do that slow the rapid decrease [in collagen production?] McCaffrey asks. “There are. I call it the three Ss. It’s sugar, sunshine, and smoking.”
Avoid these three things—the first two in excess and the third entirely—and you’ll get about as close to the fountain of youth as you can in this world.
“More than anything,” McCaffrey says, “don’t always look for the quick fix.”