A Scientist’s Guide to Vegan Collagen and Collagen Peptides

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Collagen as a dietary supplement has always been a hot commodity in the world of beauty and wellness. It seems like you can find collagen products in all sorts of stores, from your local grocery store to the shelves of Sephora. I’ve always found it fascinating how popular collagen is, both in skincare as well as a supplement. It’s popular all over the world, and whenever a new type of collagen drops, people seem to eat it right up. Nowadays, that’s literal – there are so many collagen powders and supplements out there, in lots of forms. But do they do anything? 

The short answer is, not really.

What is Collagen?

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Collagen is a protein. It’s actually the most abundant protein in mammals, including humans, making up about 30% of the protein mass in the body.1 It’s also a very large protein, at around 300,000 daltons (or 300,000 grams per mole). Just to put that into perspective, a water molecule is about 18 daltons, and the lactose is about 342 daltons. Collagen is absolutely huge!

Interestingly, it’s actually 3 separate protein chains that are cross-linked together to form a helical structure, which is collagen.2 Collagen is very important in the way various tissues in our bodies are structured. It’s found in the extracellular matrix, cartilage, skin, muscle, ligaments, and even our bones.2

Collagen is also used in the field of medicine because it’s been shown to be useful in helping wounds heal after burns and surgeries, although this is still being established and more studies need to be done.3,4,5 In addition, it’s used in sausage casings!6,7

What’s important to keep in mind is that we can make collagen. In fact, the most reliable thing we can do as we age is to simply eat a healthy diet. The amino acids that make up collagen are present in all sorts of foods, because collagen is made up for 19 of the 20 amino acids that exist! If you’re curious, though, glycine, proline, and alanine are the top 3 most abundant amino acids in collagen. Eggs have been shown to significantly increase proline and alanine in the blood after ingestion,8 and vitamin C-containing foods are great because it’s been well-established to be important and directly involved in the formation of collagen.9,10,11,12

What’s important to keep in mind is that we can make collagen. In fact, the most reliable thing we can do as we age is to simply eat a healthy diet.

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However, it’s very hard to study how certain ingredients increase collagen in the skin, because it’s hard to test the bioavailability of all of the possible compounds in foods and tie it to changes in just the skin.13 Remember, collagen is everywhere in the body! Some studies have studied certain molecules found in healthy foods and their relationships to skin collagen production,14 but the general scientific consensus is that eating healthy foods and using proper sunscreen is going to be the most effective at maintaining collagen levels throughout your body.

Collagen in Skincare

I’m sure we’ve all heard about how collagen is great for our skin, and have seen it in all sorts of skincare products. It’s been well-established at this point that collagen-containing skincare products don’t actually add collagen to the physical structure of your skin. They can feel really great, and can have other benefits like acting as a great moisturizer and barrier against dryness and other environmental factors. However, it’s been established that molecules that are larger than around 500 Daltons won’t penetrate the skin, so these collagen-containing creams and treatments don’t actually add collagen to your skin due to the sheer size of the collagen molecule.15

Recently, collagen peptides, or hydrolyzed collagens, have become all the rage. They are simply smaller pieces of collagen. Some studies have shown that taking collagen peptides orally may improve skin elasticity, hydration, and wrinkling, compared to controls. They are promising, and definitely a better alternative to trying to physically apply full-size collagen molecules with creams. However, the studies could be better designed, with larger numbers of participants, longer timelines, and wider age range of participants.16,17 In addition, one of the studies18 appears to be partially supported by the makers of the hydrolyzed collagen that they tested, as the first 2 authors appear to be associated with the company.19 

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This is an issue with a lot of studies on these sorts of compounds and products – there is a certain level of bias when the products being studied are provided by the companies and the people who are involved in the studies have an incentive for the product to show efficacy. I’ve noticed this for the pumpkin seed oil studies that I reviewed, too, in my post about if pumpkin seed extract helps alleviate overactive bladder symptoms.

The general consensus in the scientific community is that there is more research required to understand the efficacy of oral collagen supplementation. There is not a lot of reliable evidence showing that oral collagen supplementation leads to collagen preferentially being produced dermis compared to other parts of the body. However, there aren’t any harmful side effects observed with collagen use in the studies as well.20

In addition, collagen isn’t FDA-regulated, because it’s considered a dietary supplement. The most that consumers can do to ensure there is a semblance of regulation or quality assurance going towards their collagen products is to check for verification by a third-party tester, such as NSF or USP.20 

Vegan Collagen

So if collagen is found in animals, how can vegan collagen exist? Naturally, it’s impossible for collagen to be vegan. It’s only naturally found in animals, including humans.

A lot of products that come up when you search “vegan collagen” are actually just supplements that contain no real collagen of any kind, but are simply made of vegan ingredients that may help increase the amount of collagen you produce. That’s why you’ll see phrases like “collagen boost” and “vegan collagen precursors”. They are cleverly designed phrases that reflect the truth, that their purpose is to encourage collagen production, rather than contain any collagen.

Plant-derived, plant-based collagen is still a very new field, but beauty brands are really trying to tap into it. Algenist is one beauty brand that has started the production of collagen compounds made up of the exact same amino acids that are found in animal collagen, but taken from corn, soy, and wheat proteins instead. Apparently, this allows their vegan collagen to be identical to the collagen found in animals. I haven’t been able to find any well-designed, peer-reviewed studies about the true, long-term efficacy of their vegan collagen products, which appear to all be topical. I could only find summaries of the studies done by Algenist in combination with another collagen product that they have, with results based on self-assessments, on their commercial website.

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However, that’s where scientific innovation comes in! In recent years, researchers have been able to genetically modify bacteria and fungi to be able to make human collagen. They did this by genetically engineering the genes to make human collagen chains into the bacterial and fungal genome. The yeast that’s been established to be the most effective at doing this Pichia pastoris.21,22,23 Yeast is considered vegan by vegan organizations due to their categorization in the fungus kingdom.24

So, the collagen formed by these GMO yeast are considered vegan, and very sought after in the beauty world. Companies that have started production of this vegan collagen are Jland Biotech, Evonik, and Geltor. These products aren’t widely available yet, and it’s important to keep in mind the studies showing efficacy over the long-term are pretty much nonexistent.

Conclusion

After writing all this, I looked up “vegan collagen” products, and so many serums, ampoules, masks, and treatments came up that cleverly use phrases to make a layperson think there’s collagen in it, or the ingredients are guaranteed to help increase collagen in their skin. Reading all the rave reviews gave me such mixed emotions. The customers seem to love how those products make their skin feel, and the companies are making a ton of money off of those products, but the relationships are based on such loose facts and clever marketing phrases.

Living a healthy lifestyle, using sunscreen, and using Vitamin C in your skincare routine seem like better ways to optimize your body’s potential, not just for collagen production and skin health maintenance, but for much more. Remember, if you are going to try anything drastically new in your dietary and skincare regimen, talk to a professional first.

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Look, we all age, and buying skincare products left and right to try to maintain a look that just isn’t natural or feasible is simply financially irresponsible. Appreciating that you won’t always look the same, and that your beauty and features are dynamic throughout your life, is definitely the better route.