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Boosting collagen in a plant-based lifestyle

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Two incompatible trends are colliding in the U.S. wellness market, as consumers living a plant-based lifestyle try to reconcile the source of collagen is animals.

Collagen is all the rage. In supplements, drinks, other consumables and topical creams, Americans are jumping on the collagen bandwagon. According to Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ), in the U.S. alone in 2020, consumers were expected to spend $293 million on collagen supplements, up from just $50 million in 2014—a sixfold increase in six years.

At the same time, another burgeoning trend is within the consumer landscape. Americans are becoming more plant-based, environmentally conscious consumers. The vegan food market, for example, was valued at US$14.2 billion in 2018, and anticipated to climb more than twofold, to $31.4 billion, by 2026, per Research and Markets.

The collision of these two trends can create a conundrum. Collagen comes from animal products, and many plant-based or vegan consumers may not be aware of this fact, especially as it is not always clear on the label.

The collagen building block

Collagen makes up approximately 30% of the proteins within the body. It’s one of the major building blocks of bones, skin, muscles, tendons and ligaments. Collagen is also found in many other body parts, including blood vessels, corneas and teeth. It’s like a “glue” that holds all these things together.

As with all proteins, collagen is made up of amino acids—predominantly glycine, proline, hydroxyproline and arginine. But, unlike amino acid supplements that can be sourced from either plants or animals, “real” collagen is only available from animal sources.

Collagen supplements source their ingredients from slaughtered animal parts, including fish silage, hooves, hair, skin, feathers and teeth from cows, pigs, chickens and the like. The collagen is extracted from animals through a chemical process is called hydrolysis, which breaks down the collagen protein into peptides, which are short chains of amino acids more readily absorbed into the body.

Labels are not always helpful

Not all labels share sourcing information, so the consumer must not only be aware of where collagen comes from, but also be willing to do a bit of legwork to get info on a brand’s sourcing and manufacturing processes.

Going even deeper, very few collagen products disclose how they treat the animals from whom the products are sourced. Practices can range from common to cruel, to anywhere along the Whole Foods “step scale,” where “Step 1” is the lowest rating for suppliers who want to be certified: “no cages, no crates, no crowding,” and “Step 5+” is the highest: “animal centered, entire life on same farm” with extensive outdoor access. Learning about which countries collagen brands source their animal parts from can be an indicator of their level of conformance to both emerging and established U.S. standards.

The supplement market is behind the food industry in terms of providing consumers with specific and consistent information about what they’re putting into their bodies. In the case of collagen or any other supplement, it is important for consumers to know what questions to ask, and how to decipher labels to find answers.

The scoop on plant-based alternatives

No plant-based supplement can claim to contain collagen directly because plants simply do not contain collagen. However, many plant-sourced, truly vegan products on the market are formulated to help the body produce its own collagen. Generally described on labels as “collagen enhancers” or “boosters,” these products combine some of the amino acids found in collagen (such as glycine, proline, hydroxyproline and arginine) with other ingredients, such as vitamins and minerals, that can be used to help the body generate collagen. Unlike the harsher process of hydrolysis used in animal-sourced products, plant-based collagen builders are generally manufactured using fermentation, which is considered a more natural process and therefore another plus for environmentally conscious consumers.

Whether for vanity of anti-aging or long-term health, the American consumer’s appreciation for collagen is growing. But, as with any new trend, consumer awareness of how the products they consume are sourced is critical.

If sports nutrition is your game, Natural Products Insider’s “Expanding demographics in sports nutrition” digital magazine features an array of articles about additional ingredients and the market.

Mitch Kanter, Ph.D., has served in director-level roles in the healthy food, beverage and ingredient sectors for over 25 years. He is currently a board member of AminoFacts, an independent nonprofit organization that brings transparency to sourcing and production processes around food-grade amino acids, a significant ingredient in many dietary supplements. The organization applies a Leaf rating system to supplements containing amino acids, so consumers can get an at-a-glance view of which products are plant-based and conform to other standards they are seeking.

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