The human body produces collagen – which is responsible for skin elasticity and structure, as well as the health of hair and nails – by breaking down dietary protein into amino acids. It is predominantly found in connective tissues including skin, tendon, and bone tissue.
As collagen is derived from animal sources, it is problematic to describe it as plant-based, according to Traci Kantowski, senior strategic marketing director at the Collagen Stewardship Alliance (CSA) and Industry Transparency Center.
She told Vitafoods Insights: “Any claims stating a collagen is vegan are misleading because collagen is an animal protein and it’s impossible for natural collagen to be vegan.
“Besides being false, these claims cause confusion for consumers to make choices as to source – and not all sources are equal.”
Consumer demand for vegan products continues to grow
Demand for plant-based products continues to grow as more people convert to veganism: according to a 2020 survey of more than 2,600 consumers, the number of vegans in Europe has risen to 2.6 million, or 3.2% of the population.
Meanwhile, the global vegan collagen market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25.2% from 2023 to 2030, according to Data Bridge Market Research.
Kantowski said the CSA was seeing more vegan collagen claims “on shelf, at trade shows, and online”.
“Consumers want plant-based (or think they do), and manufacturers are pushing the envelope on their claims to try and meet this demand,” she said.
“In some cases, there’s also a lack of understanding of the collagen category, and in other cases, it’s a company seeing what they can get away with.”
Collagen boosters frequently mischaracterised
Many products that are positioned as vegan are in fact composed of collagen boosters – ingredients that encourage or stimulate its production, such as vitamin C or amino acids.
For example, the UK-based company Ingenious Beauty describes its vegan line as “a revolutionary plant-based alternative to collagen” that has been “proven to improve collagen synthesis in the dermis by up to 80%”.
The main ingredient in its product is a proprietary blend of extracts of Mongolian milkvetch (Astragalus membranaceus) and gotu kola (Centella asiatica), two herbs popular in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda for skin rejuvenation.
Cell culturing allows for slaughter-free products
Cell culturing constitutes a “slaughter-free” technique for creating collagen, using genetically modified yeast and bacteria.
Four human genes that code for collagen are added to the genetic structure of the microbes. Once these are in place, the yeast or bacteria start to produce the “building blocks” for human collagen.
Digestive enzymes are then added to help structure those components into molecules with the same structure as human collagen.
One company using this type of technology is Jellatech, which uses cellular agriculture to create “functional, native collagen – without animals”. The US-based startup claims the process enables it to produce “a more sustainable, smarter, high-quality collagen”.
Similar techniques are employed by the Israeli startup Aleph Farms, which last year expanded its product line to include cell-cultured collagen, which is “produced from the cells of living cows, eliminating the need to slaughter animals”.
Defining the source: Animal-free not synonymous with plant-based
But can practices like these be considered truly vegan? Not according to Dr Mark JS Miller, president at Kaiviti Consulting, a consultancy for the nutrition and wellness industries.
“It is important to note that, being an amino acid, proline is found in proteins in general,” he wrote in a LinkedIn post comparing vegan collagen to striped paint – in other words, something that does not exist.
He added: “Further, what is not always defined in proline-based vegan collagen products is: what is the source of the proline? Certainly, it is not as enriched in plant proteins, so where is the proline coming from? Is it plant, fungal, microbial, or animal?
“Some suppliers of amino acids, especially from China, use digested human hair as the source – a protein source that is normally disposed, and so costs are low.”
Third-party programmes fill regulation gap
With no regulation by an official authority, there is unlikely to be clarity on the subject any time soon. Kantowski said regulation was primarily through self-policing via groups like the CSA but added that third-party certification initiatives were gaining momentum.
“There is a new Collagen Verified programme under the NutraStrong umbrella, whose inception we have been involved with,” she said. “This programme vets collagen products to ensure their claims are substantiated and true.”
Ultimately, she argued, the responsibility lies with all stakeholders, pointing to trade shows as an example.
“Industry shows should have solid standards to prevent companies from making false claims – and, if claims are found, the product should be removed from the show floor,” she said.
She highlighted one incident at an event last year where a company “put vegan collagen on the product sign, but the packaging had a bovine source listed on the back”.
“We brought it to the … team’s attention, and the company said it was an old label – but occurrences like that are far too common,” she said.
“Additional education is also needed. CSA is developing additional resources to assist.”