Everyone is talking about collagen. A raft of new studies validating the benefits of collagen consumption, coupled with burgeoning consumer interest in holistic health and natural beauty has seen the category move beyond ‘specialised nutrition’ and topical formulas to gain serious momentum in the wider food and drink environment.
However, many remain confused about what collagen is and does. Even industry veterans seem to become confused by the different forms, sources, and applications of collagen.
What exactly is collagen?
Collagen is a structural protein that acts as a building block for bones, teeth, muscles, skin, joints and connective tissues. It can be thought of as a structural glue, holding our body together. As the most abundant protein in the body, collagen is also key to repairs. However, as we age, our body’s natural collagen production decreases, a key reason we see visual signs of aging such as sagging skin and wrinkles.
Collagen proteins are made up primarily of three amino acids—proline, hydroxyproline and glycine—which form a long chain in a triple helix structure. This twisted triple helix gives collagen unique functional properties including strength and elasticity, but also means that it cannot be absorbed through our diet in its full form. Therefore, in this full-length form, collagen is not effective for use in foods or supplements.
Step in collagen peptides. Or hydrolysed collagen. These two terms mean the same thing and refer to small peptide chains that have been broken down from larger collagen proteins, meaning they are easier for our bodies to absorb. Because of their small size, collagen peptides are absorbed by our guts and travel through the body to act as building blocks to repair, rebuild and provide energy.
Not all collagen is equal
The collagen peptides found in supplements and health products come from a variety of sources in many forms, including; bovine collagen, chicken collagen, marine collagen, and even plant-based alternatives.
While there are at least 28 different types of collagen, the most commonly seen in supplements are types I, II, III, IX and X. Types I, II and III form the bulk of the collagen in our body, however emerging evidence suggests other forms may play significant roles in our make-up.
It is important to understand that collagen peptides and gelatin are both made by breaking down the full-length collagen molecules. Both are made of the same amino acids as collagen, but with different properties. Even when it comes to collagen peptides, not all are the same; it depends greatly on the type of collagen they come from, the source of the collagen, and the way in which the peptides were broken down.
What’s driving the nutribeauty boom?
The benefits of collagen have been known for centuries. Chinese women have viewed collagen as a fountain of youth, routinely consuming foods including pig’s feet, shark fins, and donkey skin in hopes of preserving aging skin and joints. Recently, more appetizing ways to get a collagen fix have included fruity chews, flavoured coffees and creamers, powdered sachets, and easy-to-swallow capsules.
Social media has played a role too, with Instagram endorsements from celebrities like Kourtney Kardashian, who starts her day with a hot collagen drink. Furthermore, the strong and ever-growing body of scientific evidence has also started to show that supplementation with collagen peptides is resoundingly positive for skin, hair and nail health.
In a recent webinar organized by the Collagen Stewardship Alliance—an organisation launched this year to steward sustainable growth and drive consumer education around collagen—Andrew McDougall, associate director for global beauty and personal care at Mintel, said whilst collagen had been present in beauty for years, it was an increasingly relevant ingredient. “Now is the time for collagen,” McDougall commented. “We’re seeing a lot of holistic health and wellness trends really booming; inside-out beauty is booming and there’s more understanding on ingestibles.”
Data from Mintel suggests that more than half (54%) of UK women aged 16 and over believe diet has an impact on skin. Vitamin and supplement users are also becoming increasingly interested in products that make beauty claims—especially those aimed at clean skin, healthy hair, or anti-ageing, says McDougall.
Indeed, almost one-third of consumers in China have purchased health supplements for beauty purposes, and 22% of US consumers had taken a beauty supplement for hair, skin or nails.
“Collagen in particular, is one of those ingredients having a big moment as a result of its beauty powers; using the ingredient to boost beauty from the inside out. This approach is really what’s giving ingestible beauty some great potential,” McDougal added. “In a way, collagen is a hero ingredient of the moment—it can really be positioned as this ingredient that consumers have a base understanding of.”
According to Nutrition Business Journal, in 2020 consumers in the United States are expected to spend $293 million on collagen supplements, up from just $50 million in 2014. That’s 486% growth! Globally, as collagen makes its way into more foods and beverages, topicals, and even the operating room, the market is projected to reach $6.5 billion by 2025.
There really no limit in sight; collagen has shifted from its long-held status as a niche ingredient to become a high-interest ingredient in all sorts of food and drink products.
Victim of its own success?
While consumer interest—and demand for—collagen continues to grow, there is also the a growing risk that the category may become a victim of its own success, says Len Monheit, CEO of Trust Transparency Center, a group focused on providing insights and stewardship to high-growth ingredient categories that are at risk of exploitation.
“Rapid growth in a category will always mean that it is exposed to a higher risk of exploitation from those who jump in to ride the wave,” says Monheit. “We have seen how that has played out in the past with other ingredients and categories.”
Responsible stakeholders should want to take ownership of the category and help to ensure it is stewarded in the right way, a core focus of the group. “It’s not just about exploitation, but also commoditisation,” says Monheit.
The mission of the Collagen Stewardship Alliance, led by Trust Transparency Center, is to work with multiple stakeholders across the collagen market to promote collagen worldwide and steward responsible, sustainable growth of the category.
“Right now, collagen is seeing huge growth and the potential for further growth is massive. But that growth needs to be done responsibly and collaboratively,” he added. “Our goal is to bring together responsible stakeholders who want to help build a sustainable and quality-led category.”