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Collagen: Protein Poser or Power House?

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spoonful of collagen protein

Collagen has been a trendy protein supplement for some time now, receiving a lot of attention as well as celebrity endorsements. The claims of collagen’s ability to reduce wrinkles by improving skin elasticity, support gut health and build muscle have contributed to its boost in sales. But is there truth to these claims or should customers invest their money elsewhere? Let’s look at what science says about the role of collagen protein in health and aesthetics.

Collagen is a group of 16 proteins, which have rightly earned attention as they are the most abundant protein in the entire animal kingdom and accounts for one-third of the natural total-body protein in humans. However, there are some things to consider when determining the validity of these claims or at least in terms of collagen being the best protein source for its intended use. To help lay the framework for discussion, below are some important protein basics.

Getting down to the protein basics
Amino Acids
—protein building blocks; all proteins are a series of numerous linked amino acids

Non-essential amino acids—protein building blocks made within the body

Essential amino acids—protein building blocks the body cannot make efficiently and must be supplied through diet

Protein digestion—the body’s process of breaking down protein into individual amino acids to be absorbed and used by the body for:

  • Building and repairing tissues (such as bones, muscle, cartilage, skin and blood)
  • Making enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals

Supporting muscle mass
Supplemental collagen protein is a suboptimal choice when it comes to helping build or support muscle mass. The quality of a protein has to do with its overall profile, or it’s make-up of different amino acids. Having all the essential amino acids and possessing them in high amounts ultimately makes for a better protein source.

While collagen contains all of the essential amino acids, it possesses them in very low amounts. The table below shows the essential amino acid profile of collagen and whey protein concentrates. Whey protein has anywhere from 2 to 99 times the amount of each essential amino acid compared to collagen protein.

Reprinted from Collagen Supplementation: Considerations and Caveats, by Andrew Pardue. Copyright 2020 by Biolayne LLC.

Supplementing gut health
Research examining collagen protein supplementation as it relates to digestive health is limited. A study conducted in 170 subjects—all of which had diagnosed inflammatory bowel conditions—investigated collagen’s role in intestinal health. Results showed diseased subjects had lower levels of serum collagen compared to healthy subjects.

While this is an interesting observation, it does not indicate a direct cause and effect, nor does it demonstrate collagen supplementation improved the status of the diseased subjects. Currently, there are personal accounts of positive effects but no large-scale evidence showing supplementing with collagen directly supports gut health.

Improving skin elasticity
A majority of the research that favors collagen protein as a supplement has looked at collagen’s ability to increase skin firmness and delay aging. There has been a lot of skepticism about the idea that eating collagen protein directly increases the body’s production of collagen. Digestion breaks down proteins and absorbs them as individual amino acids to then use for various needs. Eating collagen protein does not directly increase collagen production by the body.

In the digestion of collagen protein, some proteins are absorbed before they are completely broken down. One of these absorbed proteins, prolyl-hydroxyproline, appears to benefit skin elasticity. Unfortunately, these studies have all been conducted on elderly subjects who have already lost some capacity for collagen production due to the natural effects of aging. So while one could assume this might hold true for younger age groups, there is not adequate data to support that.

The form and dose of collagen is important to  achieve optimal results. A hydrolyzed collagen supplement or taking prolyl-hydroxyproline itself in doses of 2.5-10 grams per day was shown to convey modest benefit in skin elasticity.

Supplemental collagen protein is at best suited for modest benefits in skin elasticity, especially in the elderly, but has limited evidence for other uses. Other practices may be more beneficial in slowing the aging process of skin, such as routine use of sunscreen and avoiding intentional tanning. When selecting a supplemental protein for dietary reasons, choose a source that is more concentrated than collagen, such as whey protein concentrate or whey protein isolate. Even soy, pea or rice proteins are great vegetarian or vegan alternatives.

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Article provided by Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services.