Is vegan collagen as good as the real thing? Here's what we know

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  • Promising research suggests that collagen supplements can provide health and skin benefits.
  • However, it's less clear whether the same can be said for vegan collagen supplements, as evidence is scarce.
  • Vegan collagen products on the market are actually 'boosters' that promote collagen production.

Collagen supplements have become widely sought-after among wellness and beauty enthusiasts, so much so that the sales of the collagen supplement market has seen a huge boost over the years, and is projected to increase.

As its popularity increased, people also started to look for vegan and cruelty-free options. The naturally occurring collagen is typically taken from the connective tissue, bones and cartilage of cows or sourced from fish, News24 previously explained.

While the use of the animal-derived supplements has robust research linking it to health and anti-ageing benefits, it is less clear whether plant-based collagen supplements can provide the same value.

We look at what goes into vegan collagen supplements, and whether it can deliver the same results as animal-based collagen.

READ MORE | Collagen supplements for skin - hoax or worth the hype?

What goes into vegan collagen

Unfortunately, it's not possible for collagen to naturally occur in plants. Instead, what goes into vegan collagen can be made by using genetically modified yeast and bacteria in the laboratory to produce animal-free (vegan) collagen.

Healthline explains that the bacteria P. pastoris, in particular, is most commonly used for genetically engineering high-quality collagen.

Kevin Herbert, a medical physicist, reiterated this, and told Live Science that collagen can only be found in animals or artificially synthesised in bacteria. 

"Vegan collagen is normally a marketing term for plant-based ingredients which help your own collagen production, also known as 'collagen promoters'," he says.

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A quick online search for vegan collagen in South Africa reflected this: trusted online retailers stocking the product advertise it as "plant-based collagen boosters", "vegan collagen boosters", and "vegan collagen-boosting powders".

In other words, actual vegan collagen is hard to find and the technique is relatively new, so the ingredients in vegan collagen boosters, which can include amino acids, silica, minerals (such as copper), and antioxidants (especially vitamin C) all promote collagen production, explains Herbert, but they cannot be likened to actual collagen.

Lack of studies

Vegan collagen boosters may help to boost the production of collagen in the body, but research looking at its impact on the health of bones and skin is still very scarce.

A 2015 study found that vitamin C in vegan collagen promoters, that was applied onto the body, was successful in inducing collagen synthesis in women, especially in those under 50 years, and had minimal side-effects.

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Another 2018 study concluded that vitamin C may stimulate collagen production and accelerate bone healing, and reduce free radicals levels in the body (which can damage skin cells and speed up ageing), among other benefits.

As far as vegan collagen goes, research suggests that a particular strain of bacteria, called Streptococcus pyogenes, can produce enough collagen to be commercially viable, notes Live Science. But this is still in the early stages of research and will take time before it shifts beyond laboratories.

Apart from there being no peer-reviewed studies looking into microbial collagen for skin health, Herbert also questions whether using microbes to produce collagen can truly be considered vegan.

Boost collagen production naturally

Do you want to strengthen your collagen production, but feel like vegan collagen boosters are not for you? You can simply incorporate certain foods rich in vitamin C and certain minerals into your diet, as it will boost your body's ability to naturally produce more collagen. 

These foods include beans, broccoli, spinach, whole grains, tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, chickpeas and berries.

Importantly, it is always best to "maximise on a healthy diet first before going to supplements", Dr Zarina Ebrahim, lecturer in  the Division of Human Nutrition, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, told News24.

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