Collagen Redux

Note: This post addresses readers’ questions regarding my February 2 post on collagen—most related to choosing among different formulations: powdered collagen, gelatin and bone broth.

COLLAGEN IS suddenly everywhere: huge displays of giant powdered collagen containers at Whole Foods; and dozens of choices of brands, and more choices within brands, on Amazon.  In my first consultation about joint pain with a new doctor, he gave me one prescription: bone broth!

Because there is no FDA regulation of supplements, including any ingestible collagen—either of actual content or of purported health benefits—most information about health claims and criticisms, positive and negative, come from manufacturers and fans.  What made an impression on me was three acquaintances, all with advanced degrees in science, who told me about daily doses of collagen causing their hair and nails to thicken—probably not a placebo effect in their cases because none desired this result.

Research mentioned in my previous post—although involving only about 800 subjects in 11 studies —found that some collagen formulations worked well for aging skin, healing wounds and other problems, while others showed good results for increasing skin elasticity and hydration.

Studies on joint mobility and pain have been less conclusive.  A recent study by British and Italian investigators of 120 patients found improved mobility and reduced pain —but they took a “nutraceutical” that included, along with hydrolyzed fish collagen, “vitamins, antioxidants and other active ingredients” — making it unclear what caused what.

In the absence of FDA oversight or adequate research, online review sites that compare and rate collagen powders —which can be made using ground-up animal, fowl, or fish parts (those marketed as “plant-based” do not contain collagen) —can provide helpful information.

The Smarter Reviews comparison concluded that bovine collagen is the most “potent and effective”— and recommended “hydrolyzed” collagen, with broken-down amino acids that are more easily absorbed by the body.

Those touting collagen from beef contend that cows and pigs have an amino acid profile closer to humans.  For people who don’t want to eat meat products, fish collagen preparations score high on most reviews.

For bovine collagen, the question arises: why not the old, familiar, and by far cheaper Knox gelatin?  The most common reason is the inability to obtain information from Knox about their source animals — in particular about whether the animals’ diets are organic and/or non-GMO —as well as which parts of the animals are used.  Also, compared to Knox, newer formulations have little or no taste.

A related question concerns the difference between gelatin and powdered collagen.  According to manufacturers, formulations of both offer the same health benefits, but most gelatin dissolves only in hot liquids and has a thickening effect, while most collagen powders do not thicken, and they dissolve in liquid at any temperature.

While people generally add gelatin to hot cereal or other hot foods, most add collagen powder to coffee—and most agree about the advantages: easy to mix, tasteless and no thickening.  But a few fans say they can taste the added product or that in cold liquids some formulations fail to dissolve completely, leaving gooey clumps that float and stick to the sides of containers.

The greatest number of questions arise about the choice of powder—not just which brands, but which products made by those companies.  Great Lakes, for example, voted best overall in the “Best of 2020” by verywellhealth, offers several different products.

Great Lakes “bone hydrolysate” (red-printed label) comes from bones and hooves, preferred by some for the minerals; while for hydrolysate alone (green-printed label), collagen is extracted from the animals’ hides, explained in a call to Great Lakes customer service.

Another brand, Vital Proteins, won top awards at three sites, including “best powder” at number two on verywellhealth; and number three on Smarter Reviews.

Bone broth offers a completely different collagen option, seeming the most natural because it’s food not powder— although some worry that the amino acids in broth, not hydrolyzed or broken down, may be less well absorbed by the body.

Confusingly, bone broth is unlike traditional “broth,” which involves cooking bones with meat —or almost anything including vegetables—for an hour or so.  “Bone broth” is closer to the thicker “stock,” made by boiling cleaned bones for 18 to 48 hours to allow collagen to be released.

Investigating my new doctor’s bone broth prescription, I found hypotheses and research on the connection between my issues—joint hypermobility, inflammation and chronic pain, sometimes called “joint hypermobility syndrome”—and inherited disorders of collagen synthesis, like Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

To combat the ravages of aging skin, ingesting collagen seems to offer the best evidence for improving hydration and elasticity, although friends’ accounts of thickening hair and nails are better motivators for me.  For joint pain, I try to go with recommendations from a new doctor when possible —I bought a balance board despite doubting I will ever master it sufficiently to benefit. But I have already tried and failed with so many other hopeful potions (glycosamine, hyaluronic acid, cortisone) that I might not add bone broth if I hadn’t already been hearing and reading about collagen.  And because I resist adding bone broth to my diet every day—certainly not for breakfast as suggested—adding collagen supplements seems worth a try.


Mary Carpenter

Every Tuesday, well-being editor Mary Carpenter delivers health news you can use.

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