Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on collagen supplements get a dubious return. By Jennifer Bowden, New Zealand Listener.
Collagen, perhaps best known from the 1980s as an injectable filler for plumping up lips, has had a resurgence in popularity. Celebrities such as Kourtney Kardashian rave about how their morning collagen drink benefits their skin and well-being. And dairy brand Lewis Road Creamery recently launched a collagen-containing milk that caused some controversy. So, will adding collagen powder to your morning coffee benefit your skin?
Collagen is the body's main structural protein, found in skin and other connective tissues; it literally holds our bones, cartilage, skin and blood vessels together. Which is vital, because our skin forms an important barrier against the environment, protecting us from sunlight, dust, bacterial attacks and more.
However, as the years mount up, a number of changes occur to our skin, including sagging, dryness, thinning, lines and wrinkles and so-called age spots. These are the result of a range of external factors such as exposure to sunlight and environmental pollution, and internal factors such as reduced production of elastin and collagen.
Cue a burgeoning collagen supplement industry as an answer to improving the appearance of ageing skin. It's estimated that US consumers will spend US$293 million on collagen supplements in 2020, up from US$50 million in 2014, according to market watcher Nutrition Business Journal.
Most research on collagen supplements has focused on their use in treatment for arthritis and wound healing. In those trials, collagen (type II) supplements have produced mixed results. They may provide some relief for joint pain or inflammation, but not a significant amount.
Nonetheless, in August, Lewis Road Creamery launched a product containing type II collagen (5g per 250ml of milk), with much fanfare about how it would support joint health. Its website claimed the collagen "specifically aids joint health and mobility" and had been "scientifically shown to regenerate joint cartilage [and] stimulate the body's own mechanisms for maintaining healthy joints and optimum mobility".
However, within a fortnight it had back-pedalled and removed those claims after Consumer New Zealand pointed out they weren't approved under the Food Standards Code. The European Food Safety Authority has also concluded that there isn't a clear link between collagen type II supplementation and joint health.
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But what about the claims that a tablespoon of collagen powder in our morning coffee will improve our skin?
For a start, collagen melts at higher than body temperature. So, a hot cup of coffee will turn powdered collagen into a gelatinous mess (gelatin is made from collagen).
Hot coffees aside, researchers have investigated the effect of collagen (type I) supplements on a variety of skin parameters such as wrinkles and density. Slovenian researchers conducted a double-blind placebo-controlled study of a liquid-food supplement that combined coenzyme Q10 with hydrolysed fish collagen. Among 34 healthy women aged 40-65, they found 12 weeks of the combined supplement led to reduced wrinkles around the eye area, fewer total wrinkles and improved skin smoothness. How much of the effect was due to collagen is unknown.
Other clinical trials involving combinations of type I collagen and various antioxidants and nutrients have also purportedly produced positive results. However, many of these trials are funded by supplement manufacturers, and from past experience, industry-funded trials tend to be biased towards the product.
If you want to try a collagen supplement, take it in a chilled liquid form, perhaps as a powder mixed into a cold beverage. And you might like to consider the origins of your collagen supplement. Typically, collagen comes from ground fish, chicken, pig, and cow parts. Recent research found one collagen product was contaminated with cadmium, a toxic heavy metal, which is definitely not what you should feed your skin with.