So What’s All This Hype About Collagen?

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Photo: Courtesy of Vitamix

Collagen is comprised of the amino acids glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and arginine and is the most abundant protein in our body. Not only that, but it’s responsible for creating healthy skin, hair, connective tissue, bone, cartilage, joints, and even gut lining. 

You’ll often see collagen and gelatin used interchangeably. Although there’s no difference when it comes to their benefits, there is a difference in how you can use them in your cooking recipes. 

The Differences Between Collagen and Gelatin

Collagen powder or hydrolysate is collagen that has been heated and treated with enzymes. The bonds between the amino acids are broken down, but the amino acids themselves are still intact. Hydrolysis sounds like an unhealthy process, but it simply means we enzymatically break a hydrogen bond so the amino acids become smaller peptide chains. This can be correlated to the way we mechanically break down food with our teeth, and then enzymatically break it down with our saliva. 

Due to this breakdown, collagen is more beneficial for people who have severe digestive issues as it’s much easier for the body to digest and assimilate when compared to gelatin. Another benefit of collagen is that it can be added to cold smoothies or drinks and will not clump together. It is also tasteless and odorless. Therefore, it can be added to baked goods and desserts that aren’t very savory. 

Our ancestors — as well as our grandparents — ate a lot more gelatin than we do today.

Gelatin, on the other hand, is derived from collagen and comprises the amino acids glycine and proline. When bones, cartilage, fibrous tissue, and organs break down, they become gelatin, which is the gel that forms in bone broth when it’s left in the fridge. This jelly is then dried and turned into gelatin powder, which, if added to water, regains its gel-like properties. 

As opposed to collagen hydrolysate, no hydrolysis or breaking down of amino acids takes place. Therefore, some people find it harder to digest gelatin and might need to stick to actual bone broth (where it’s melted down) or to collagen powder. However, the gel-like properties make gelatin great for gummies, marshmallows, or any desserts that require a jelly-like consistency (like jello or panna cotta). 

Why It’s More Important Than Ever

Our ancestors — as well as our grandparents — ate a lot more gelatin than we do today. This is because people were much more concerned with nose-to-tail eating than they are now. Consuming the entire animal (organs, skin, tendons, cartilage, and bones) and creating broth for stews, soups, and braising was a common practice instilled in most traditional cuisines. This practice has been lost, mostly due to large-scale industrial meat production. This means that people are less concerned with using every last piece of the animal thanks to how cheap meat has become. Additionally, the disadvantages of not participating in nose-to-tail eating are externalized and “distant” from us as consumers. We don’t see how much goes to waste and we don’t hear much about the benefits of eating some of the other parts of the animal.

This is another great example of how nature presents us with the entirety of what we need.

We’ve replaced nose-to-tail eating with more tender meat cuts, such as steak and chicken breast. Although these cuts may be rich in most amino acids, they aren’t rich in glycine and proline — which are abundant in connective tissue. When the amino acids aren’t balanced, the risk factor for heart disease goes up. Some people use this hypothesis to explain why meat-eating has been previously linked to heart disease. However, it fails to point out that these risk factors can be mitigated by eating the whole animal, therefore balancing out the amino acids needed to maintain our health. This is another great example of how nature presents us with the entirety of what we need, yet we pick and choose what we think is “better”. Because of this, we end up doing more harm than good. 

What’s Available on the Market

Research has shown that genetically-engineered bacteria and yeast can create collagen and gelatin. However, this isn’t available on the market (yet). 

You’ll notice that all brands promoting vegan collagen are labeled as a “collagen boost” or “collagen builder”.  This is because they contain collagen-promoting nutrients, rather than actual collagen. This can come in the form of amino acids — like glycine, proline, and lysine — or minerals, like magnesium and vitamin C. Some brands contain more unusual ingredients like bamboo extract (a natural source of silicon) and tremella fuciformis sporocarp extract (silver ear mushroom), which has shown to hydrate the skin by binding moisture to its surface. You can even sometimes find rice bran solubles (tocotrienols) — a bioavailable source of vitamin E. 

How to Ensure Your Body Gets Enough Amino Acids

As always, the best way to maintain your health is to eat a nutrient-dense and balanced diet that includes foods like bone broth (made with bones, cartilage, and joints from pasture-raised animals). Pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, pistachios, and cashews are also abundant in amino acids. 

Citrus fruit is abundant in vitamin C, which is needed to link amino acids together. However, since the practice of making bone broth has been somewhat lost (and we don’t always eat as much nutrient-dense food as we should), a supplement can be very beneficial.