Your body uses amino acids to build muscle, bone, cartilage, skin, hair, connective tissue, and much more. There are many different types of amino acids, but the type found in collagen are the most abundant in your body thanks to the role they play in forming your connective tissues and skin.
When you consider that your body’s collagen production declines as you age, and that adequate collagen is needed for strong bones, joints, and skin, it seems like adding collagen to your diet is a no-brainer. That’s why many supplement makers have started selling collagen powders and pills, which are made mostly from "animal parts" — usually bones or skin of cows, or scales of fish. (Vegans, take note.)
But do these supplements really do anything? Here’s what you need to know.
1. There are different types of collagen.
There are more than a dozen types of collagen, each composed of different "peptides" or amino acids. Different types form skin and tendons as opposed to cartilage. Figuring out which may help your health has proved tricky. (More on that in a minute.) Also, supplements containing collagen vary a ton.
In most cases, if you’re buying a collagen peptides powder, you’re buying "hydrolyzed" type-I collagen that has been extracted from animal hides or bones, or fish scales.Hydrolyzed simply means that the amino acid chains have been broken down into smaller units, a process that allows it to dissolve in both hot and cold liquids.
This type of collagen has become incredibly popular due to the fact you to add it to everything from hot coffee and soups to cold brew and smoothies. It also packs a protein punch, with a two-scoop serving of most collagen peptides delivering around 18 grams.
2. The most-complete research focuses on joint health.
Going back to at least the early 1990s, studies have linked collagen supplementation with reduced symptoms of arthritis. In one 2009 study in the International Journal of Medical Sciences, four out of five osteoarthritis sufferers who took a daily 40 mg dose of undenatured type-II collagen ("UC-II") saw their pain drop by an average of 26%. (Unlike type-I collagen, mentioned above, type-II collagen is derived from chicken cartilage — not cow bones and hides or fish scales.)
What’s not clear is how the collagen in the supplement actually helped the OA sufferers’ joints. Rather than contributing to your body’s supply of collagen or cartilage, these supplements may reduce inflammation, which would improve OA symptoms, the authors of that study write. The effectiveness of collagen when it comes to arthritis and joint pain is still questionable, but there’s enough promising research to give it a shot.
3. The beauty benefits are sketchier.
Talk to nutrition scientists, and they’ll tell you one of the biggest mistakes they hear when it comes to food and supplements is assuming that something you swallow turns into the same something in your body. That’s not really how digestion and biochemistry work.
In terms of collagen supplements offering skin and hair benefits, Adam Friedman, M.D., an associate professor of dermatology at George Washington University, says, "No way.""The collagen is going to be digested by your GI tract because it isn't built to survive the massive pH changes in the gut," he explains. There’s research to back him up on that. A 2002 study found your gut’s digestive enzymes and acids break down hydrolyzed collagen, which is the type found in most powders. But the same study found type-II (UC-II) collagen may be able to slip through your gut without losing its chemical structure.
Of course, we're still learning about the human gut. More research has linked some collagen peptides to reduce skin wrinkles and healthier skin, so it’s possible some new finding will explain the anecdotal evidence linking collagen powders to nail and hair benefits. But at this point, there are many more questions than answers. There’s some evidence that certain amino acids found in collagen — in particular, one called glycine — may reduce GI inflammation and aid digestion. But again, the evidence is mixed. Most of it didn’t involve collagen powders or supplements, but instead looked at specific amino acids in a lab setting.
5. The FDA doesn't regulate these supplements.
As is the case with any supplement, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration does not monitor collagen powders for safety or efficacy unless a manufacturer claims its supplement can cure disease, or something goes wrong and people get sick. For this reason, it's important to do a little research before stocking up.
How to Choose a Collagen Supplement
Any type of protein isolate could help you meet your protein needs if you require more (due to disease, injury, sports, or skin conditions) or you’re experiencing loss of appetite. Regardless, it’s crucial to look for the following when buying a collagen supplement:
1. Choose ones with as few simple ingredients as possible. Collagen protein powder should just be collagen protein isolate, a.k.a. collagen hydrolysate, hydrolyzed collagen, or collagen peptides.
2. Skip the flavored versions. These can contain added sugars, which could upset your GI tract or just add calories where you didn’t want ‘em. Go for the plain version and add a sweetener to desserts yourself.
3. Look for a third-party certification. Given the lack of FDA regulation, any time you're choosing a dietary supplement, check if a credible group like the NSF, UL or USP has tested it for safety before.
If you want to try a collagen supplement for two to three months, the health risks should be minimal and there may be some benefits. Regardless, it's always better to choose food over supplements no matter what. We know tons about the benefits of eating protein (among all other nutrients), but very little about the benefits of eating it in isolated form.
For most of us, as long as you’re eating regular meals and snacks made from a combination of different types of protein (from plants, seafood, or animals), you’re good to go!