As a redheaded jogger with a bad back, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t immediately jump on the collagen bandwagon. A vague promise that a couple scoops of the powdered protein in my morning coffee could improve both my easily-sunburnt, dried-out skin and heal my achy back and knees was all I needed to drop $25 on the stuff.
Per the Nutrition Business Journal, I’m not alone either — they expect Americans to spend $293 million on collagen supplements this year, compared to just $50 million in 2014. And by 2027, that number will rise to $7.5 billion.
But is that vague promise even vaguely real? Can collagen supplements save my skin? My back? My knees? All three? Everything else that’s wrong with me?
Before we get too definitive, Justin Meissner, a personal trainer who focuses on joint health, says it’s important to understand what exactly collagen is. “Collagen is the main structural protein in the extracellular matrix of connective tissues in the body,” he tells me, which is why it’s often called “the scaffolding of the body.”
There are many types of structural or fibrous proteins that help build muscle fiber, tendons and other connective tissue — you might be familiar with keratin, for example. Where collagen stands apart is that its unique molecular structure makes it particularly good at building and strengthening human tissue and muscle fibers. As for collagen “peptides” — i.e., the powdered stuff I’m adding to my coffee — that just means the collagen has undergone a process called “hydrolysis,” which breaks the amino acids down into smaller molecules and allows for more efficient absorption.
Now, there is some concern around the manufacturing of collagen. Like all supplements, there is little-to-no regulation around how and what it’s made out of — typically ground-up animal hooves, skin, bones and joints, which is certainly a great way to use more of the animals we consume for food. But if that worries you — or grosses you out — you can naturally (and easily) supplement your diet with collagen by sucking out the marrow of a couple bones or brewing up a steaming pot of bone broth.
Regardless of how you ingest your collagen (so long as you’re not injecting it), there are plenty of studies on how it impacts the health of your skin and hair, but since we’re dealing with my decrepit body, let’s focus on what collagen does for the joints. “Everybody’s joints have collagen in them,” Meissner explains. “It’s what helps keep them strong and intact.” As such, ingesting more collagen does allow my joints to better heal and maintain themselves.
There’s some science to back this up, too. Multiple studies have shown athletes who take collagen for prolonged periods of time report having less joint pain than those who didn’t. It’s also been reported to improve pain for those with joint disorders and osteoarthritis. But in an interview with WebMD, Mark Moyad, author of The Supplement Handbook: A Trusted Expert’s Guide to What Works and What’s Worthless for More Than 100 Conditions, warns that these studies should be taken with a grain of salt. Not only are they relatively small, but many have been partially funded by the industry. “The science is truly in its infancy,” he says. “There’s a lot of conflict of interest, and not enough quality control.”
That said, Meissner is confident collagen works. “The better question is what’s the recipe for it to have the best shot for helping out joints,” he tells me. “When we give our body protein in the form of collagen, we need to do our best to give that protein somewhere to go.”
Similar to taking protein in order to achieve massive biceps, you wouldn’t just chug a protein shake and hope your body sends all those nutrients to your arms. “Instead, you’d exercise your biceps with an increasing level of strain on the muscle along with ingesting the extra protein,” Meissner says. “As the muscle fibers tear and repair, your body will direct that protein to your muscles so they can get built bigger and stronger to maintain themselves for the higher amount of rigorous activity.”
The same goes for collagen and crappy knees. “If I want collagen to benefit my achy knees, I need to do some kind of activity that puts a tiny amount of work on those joints so that the cells in the knee will be more likely to take the collagen that I’m using as a supplement,” he says. “Otherwise, if I just start taking collagen and don’t change my activity level, my body will almost blindly start putting the collagen anywhere.”
He’s also sure to add, “Remember that while a good collagen supplement can be a great supplement, it’s not a ‘replacement.’ You should still get as much protein as your body needs from clean sources like meat, beans and broths.”
Maybe, then, it’s time to stop dumping collagen powder in my coffee every morning and start brewing it with a totally different kind of beans instead.