Collagen supplements are big business in the beauty industry, currently valued at almost USD $10 billion (1). In a recent blog we looked at whether collagen supplements actually improve the appearance of the skin - read it here. Another question we felt worth asking was where all this collagen is coming from. As we know, collagen can only be obtained from animals. Although ‘vegan’ collagen supplements are marketed, they do not contain collagen, but generally include supplements thought to help our bodies produce more of it. Here we look at where collagen supplements come from so you can make up your own mind about them.
Why take collagen if I have a well-balanced diet?
One reason collagen supplements are thought to improve skin health is because most diets may be lacking in glycine, a key amino acid needed to manufacture collagen. Collagen is an unusual protein in that it is contains over 30% glycine. Although glycine can be made to some extent by our bodies from other amino acids, some scientists believe that glycine intake may be inadequate for collagen production (2). This seems to be the case particularly for meat eaters. In a recent study, meat-eaters had the lowest blood levels of glycine, while vegans had the highest (3), with vegetarians and fish-eaters in between. In a separate study, a vegan diet resulted in higher glycine blood levels than a meat-based diet, even though there was a higher glycine intake by the meat-eaters (4).
These studies raise questions about whether collagen supplements are effective only in meat-eaters, since it seems that carnivores may have a relative deficiency of glycine. For vegans, who may tend to have higher glycine levels, collagen production may already be optimal. This is an area that would benefit from further investigation.
What are the animal sources of collagen supplements?
The most common source of collagen for supplements is cattle - it is extracted from their bones, tendons, lungs and connective tissue. Pigs are another common source. Tissues from sheep, chickens, ducks and rabbits have also been used for collagen supplements. A significant concern around using cattle and sheep is the risk of transmitting Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, Mad Cow Disease). In pigs, religious issues can pose a problem. For these reasons, some manufacturers market marine collagen as a potentially less controversial source. Marine collagen is extracted from the bones, fins and scales of fish, as well as from jellyfish, sponges, starfish and sea cucumbers (5).
Is bovine collagen ethical since it’s a by-product of meat consumption?
A major source of bovine collagen supplements is from cattle raised in Brazil where cattle are frequently grass-fed - a positive selling point for health-conscious supplement consumers. Cattle production in Brazil accounts for around 80% of deforestation of the Amazon, which is a major driver of global warming and biodiversity loss. Cattle raised on deforested land in Brazil have been traced to abattoirs that supply to major brands of collagen supplements. Although some consider collagen simply a by-product of beef production, demand for leather and collagen can account for as much as 20% of the income generated from cattle (6).
Is marine collagen a more ethical source?
Some consider marine collagen sustainable as it is often a by-product of fish production. However, there are concerns that increasing demand for marine collagen may open up industries that could result in exploitation of new species. And fishing is an industry that is already straining the marine environment.
A case in point is collagen extracted from sea cucumbers, a new trend in collagen supplements, despite the fact that sea cucumbers are already threatened in many parts of the world (7). The damaging effects of the demand for sea cucumber populations was highlighted close to home only a few months ago, when over one tonne of sea cucumbers was seized from illegal fishers in the Kimberley Marine Park off the coast of WA (8).
Of additional concern are claims of sustainability of marine collagen where it is often clearly not the case. For example, Atlantic cod is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (9), whereas according to the Marine Conservation Society, the population is declining, being overfished, and results in by-catch of the endangered golden redfish (10). The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists its status as ‘vulnerable’, one level away from ‘endangered’ (11). To my mind, a status of ‘sustainable’ for this species is questionable to say the least.
The last word
At a time when our planet is very close to an environmental tipping point, it’s important for us to look closely at our impact on the world. Now is the time to be vigilant about taking at face value the claims made by clever marketers. It’s time to consider what is more valuable to us - our skin/luxuries/convenience - or our planet?
I recently read this quote by John Sawhill, which seems more relevant today than ever: “In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but what we refuse to destroy”.