Collagen is making a comeback — and it has nothing to do with expensive injections or pricey wrinkle creams.
The nutrient re-emerged as the darling of the wellness world when health nuts began whipping up batches of bone broth in hopes the collagen-rich soup would provide natural health benefits. Now, some are skipping the stock and adding the trendy protein — in powdered form — straight to their morning cup of joe.
Who's drinking this protein-rich Kool Aid? Actress Jennifer Aniston, Bulletproof Coffee founder and biohacking entrepreneur Dave Asprey and a slew of health bloggers are praising powdered collagen for its supposed health benefits.
Should you swap your creamer for collagen when you enjoy your next coffee? Here's what you need to know about the buzzy dietary supplement.
What is collagen?
Vegans and vegetarians, you'll want to sit this one out. Collagen is the protein-rich connective tissue between bones. It's related to gelatin, the protein that puts the wiggle in Jell-O and pudding. When you cook a steak, the collagen within the "grain" of the meat cooks and breaks down into gelatin, according to NPR.
Many powdered collagen products, like the Bulletproof Upgraded Collagen Protein, are frequently made from the connective tissue in cows. Some products, like Dirty Lemon's skin+hair drink, are made from fish collagen so they can appeal to consumers who avoid beef for dietary or religious reasons. Like other dietary supplements, powdered collagen products are not strongly regulated by the FDA.
Powered collagens are the hydrolyzed form of gelatin, meaning that the proteins are broken down into individual peptide (amino acid) chains and the powdered collagen doesn't gel like gelatin. You can easily stir powdered collagen into hot liquids or other foods.
"Throughout history we've eaten collagen because we've made efficient use of the animal," Asprey told Mic in an email, explaining that when we chow down on hamburgers and steaks, we miss out on the beneficial animal connective tissue in its raw state. Asprey began eating powdered collagen when he found bone broth was "incredibly inconvenient" to make.
Dumping a tablespoon or two of collagen into your morning brew is way faster than waiting eight to 10 hours for a slow cooker to make broth. But would the powdery white stuff sully the taste of coffee? I decided to try it for myself.
I dumped a heaping spoonful — roughly 10 grams — of Bulletproof Upgraded Collagen Protein into a cup of cold brew. The powder immediately sunk into the brew and started dissolving. I stirred vigorously, noticing as the powder began forming gelatinous clumps not unlike, well ... boogers.
Some of the booger-like clumps sunk to the bottom of my drink. Try as I might, more stirring did not break them up. I took a sip and hoped for the best.
Shockingly, the collagen-rich cold brew didn't offend my taste buds. In fact, I hardly noticed that my caffeine was laced with a protein-rich powder. The coffee had a smooth and bitter taste, just like any other cold brew with a splash of milk.
Here's where it got bad: Unbeknownst to me, one of the gelatinous clumps lodged itself into my straw and I ate it. The clump had the slimy texture of the chewy tapioca pearls in a bubble tea, yet it tasted slightly yeasty. Luckily, a few more sips of the cold brew cleansed the taste from my palate.
The health benefits of collagen
One thing's for sure: Collagen provides an extra boost of protein. Two tablespoons contains 10 grams of the macronutrient; in contrast, a scoop of most protein powders typically has more than 20 grams of protein.
"Adding [collagen] to a food or beverage will increase the protein content," Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Mic in an email.
But there's not a ton of data to fully support other health claims, Rumsey noted. Here's a breakdown of the science behind various health claims around collagen.
Claim: Collagen keeps skin wrinkles at bay.
The label for Vital Proteins, one of the most popular brands of powdered collagen, proudly boasts that it's a "100% natural anti-aging dietary supplement." The fine print notes the statement has not been evaluated by the FDA.
Reality: "Our bodies produce less collagen as we age," Rumsey said. "Some small studies have shown a reduction in wrinkles after a few months of oral collagen intake, but none of them have been large enough to know for sure."
In one study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, a collagen supplement helped "improve hallmarks of skin aging," according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Another study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that women who took collagen supplements noticed an improvement in the appearance of cellulite. The latter study was conducted by a researcher who is an employee for a collagen supplement company, so the results should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.
Claim: Collagen is good for joint health.
Reality: Several clinical studies confirm collagen can counteract joint wear and tear for people who have osteoarthritis, according to the Gelatin Manufacturers of Europe.
One study noted that consuming eight to 12 grams of collagen a day improved symptoms of osteoarthritis and osteoporosis; another 24-week study found that athletes had less pain in their joints after they began taking the dietary supplement. In a separate six-month study, men and women over 50 years of age experienced decreased joint pain by consuming a food supplement made of collagen hydrolysate.
However, overall results have been mixed. A summary of studies from Arthritis Research UK revealed that some collagen products have helped people who have joint health problems, while others did not relieve symptoms.
Claim: Collagen improves gastrointestinal distress.
"Gelatin and collage may help coat the digestive tract," Katie Wells, founder of Wellness Mama, wrote on her website. On Dr. Axe, clinical nutritionist Josh Axe referred to one small study that found patients with irritable bowel syndrome had lower levels of collagen in serum markers compared to healthy patients.
Reality: "Gelatin has prebiotic properties so that may have some benefits," Gerard Mullin, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins who specializes in gastroenterology, told Mic in a phone interview. According to Mullin, prebiotics are the soluble fiber that "help the good bacteria grow." Other examples of prebiotics include bananas, Jerusalem artichokes and asparagus, he said.
Mullin isn't aware of any clinical studies that conclusively establish powdered collagen can aid in gut health, but he did note the amino acid glutamine "has gut-healing properties." Bone broths are high in glutamine, Mullin explained.
"I'm a big believer in food and its potential in impacting health outcomes," Mullin said. However, Mullin pointed out that companies often overcharge customers for trendy health products like bone broth, a tendency that bothers him because "people may be taken advantage of," he said.
"I do respect there have been beliefs [the scientific community] hasn't tested yet," Mullin said. "Maybe this is one of them. For me, the jury is still out."
Rumsey noted there are plenty of other foods that can help support skin health.
"Vitamin C is important for collagen formation, and the antioxidant vitamins C, E and beta-carotene can help reduce oxidative damage to the skin caused by aging and sun exposure," Rumsey said, explaining that good old fruits and veggies are the "best sources" of these antioxidants.
Verdict? The cheapest way to get the supposed benefits of collagen might be investing in a healthy diet.