Ah, collagen - scroll through Instagram or any wellness blog and you’re guaranteed to uncover endless posts featuring this ingredient and touting benefits like stronger hair or improved digestion. Brands have done an incredible job positioning collagen as a superfood ingredient, and in the process have developed products with pretty pastel packaging that look like something you’d find in a high-end beauty store.
As someone who’s been following a plant-based diet for years (and therefore avoids animal-derived collagen), I’ve watched the rise of this ingredient from the sidelines and wondered, what about a plant-based collagen? Is there a way for vegans and vegetarians to still get the touted benefits without actually consuming an animal-derived product?
To answer this question, let’s take a closer look at WHAT collagen actually is and HOW it works in our body.
According to New York Dermatologist New York dermatologist Whitney Bowe, collagen is a protein found in the cartilage, bone, and tissues of animals, fish and humans. Humans have the ability to naturally produce collagen, but Bowe notes that “as we get older, we break down faster than we can replace it.” This gradual depletion of collagen contributes to changes in our skin, joints, and muscles that we typically associate with aging. According to collagen brands like Vital Proteins, consuming collagen protein (derived from either fish, chicken, or cows) helps us replace and restore the collagen that our bodies naturally lose as we age.
Nerd Out with Us Here
To understand whether a plant-based form of collagen is possible, we need to nerd out on protein chemistry for a minute. Basically, protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids, and different types of protein (whether its egg-derived protein, pea protein, or bovine protein) all contain a different mix of amino acids. Turns out that collagen protein has a unique set of amino acids found only within the skin and tissue of animals, and this amino acid combination does not naturally occur in plants.
But thanks to some groundbreaking new research, scientists have been able to re-create the amino acid structure of collagen by breaking down various plant proteins (like hemp, soy, and pea protein) and re-combining specific amino acids to mirror the amino acid structure of collagen. So basically, they’re taking little snippets of amino acids from different proteins and re-combining them to form a new protein that resembles collagen. There’s been a handful of new beauty products on the market that are using “plant-based collagen” created with this technique, although we’ve yet to see any supplements or edible products using this re-constructed, plant-derived form of collagen.
Getting the Same Benefits from Plants
While the world waits for the first edible, plant-derived collagen, there are a number of vegan supplements providing similar benefits - no animal-derived powders necessary.
A promising plant-based alternative to collagen is silica, a mineral that can be taken as a supplement or consumed through silica-rich foods like rice, oats, and bamboo tea. Similar to collagen, silica has been shown to strengthen bones, teeth, and ligaments. Another promising alternative is biotin, which can also be consumed in supplement form or absorbed through biotin-rich foods like nuts, seeds, and avocados. (Side note: I’ve personally been taking a biotin supplement for several months, and have legitimately noticed my hair and nails growing faster than before I began taking the supplement.)
What is "Collagen Protection"?
In addition to supplementing with silica and biotin, new brands are offering plant-based products that provide “Collagen Support” to help your body protect and maintain its natural collagen supply. Earlier this year, Moon Juice launched a ‘Beauty Shroom Vegan Collagen Protection’ that, according to Moon Juice, helps “preserve your natural collagen while hydrating skin from the inside out”. Another well-known supplement brand, Garden of Life, now offers a supplement called “Organic Plant Collagen Builder”, which “supports healthy-looking skin with a blend of nutrients designed to support collagen production”.
The Ethical Debate on Food Technology
We’re calling it now - the future is ripe for new products that allow vegans and vegetarians to experience the benefits of collagen without actually consuming any animal-derived products. But this type of innovation also opens a debate on the use of science to manipulate ingredients and alter the way our food is produced. Is it better to consume a plant-based (but lab-derived) alternative to collagen, eat the real thing, or just avoid it altogether? We’ve seen these questions asked in the context of controversial “clean meat” alternatives (like Memphis Meats and Impossible Foods), and are curious to hear your thoughts regarding plant-based collagen supplements!