Choosing a collagen supplement can be challenging. So many products, so much marketing, so many health claims.
Many of these claims are true. Collagen supplements have been shown to reduce wrinkles, improve sleep, and accelerate wound healing. They may even boost longevity.
Because of this, you’ll want to include collagen peptides in your nutritional arsenal.
But when it comes to choosing the right product, you need to do some homework — not put blind faith in product marketing.
With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know before buying a collagen supplement.
You’ll get the scoop on supplements soon, but first: a little science on collagen itself.
Of the many proteins that form your body, collagen is the most abundant. Your skin, tendons, and ligaments — connective, conjunctive tissues — are primarily made up of collagen[*].
Collagen, in other words, is the resin, glue, tape, gel (choose your sticky substance) that holds your limbs and organs together. And as it happens, your limbs and organs need lots of glue.
Unfortunately, your ability to produce collagen declines with age. This is, in part, to blame for wrinkles, sagging skin, cellulite, and other cosmetic complaints. It’s also why supplementing collagen has an epidermal anti-aging effect[*].
Like all proteins, collagen is composed of amino acids — fundamental building blocks that assemble to form larger tissues. Compared to other tissues — like muscle tissue — collagen is made up of some unique amino acids. Specifically: collagen contains less essential, but more non-essential, amino acids.
Essential amino acids are called essential because they must come through diet, not because they’re more important than non-essential amino acids. You need both, but the difference is: you can synthesize non-essential aminos.
Take the non-essential amino acid glycine — a powerful molecule largely responsible for the benefits of collagen supplementation. In terms of aminos, collagen is mostly glycine. About 33%.
One could argue that glycine should be re-categorized as essential.
Here’s why. Your body can synthesize about 3 grams of glycine per day, but that’s not nearly enough. According to the research, you need closer to 10 grams of glycine to fuel collagen synthesis[*].
That’s where collagen supplements come in. But not all collagen supplements are created equal. First of all, there are actually different types of collagen. And each type supports something a little different in your body.
There’s a vast constellation of collagen out there. Twenty seven types!
For the purposes of this article, the top five will do just fine. If you want to learn them all, check out the following citation[*].
Back yet? Okay. Here are the collagen types that account for most supplements on the market:
- Type I: Known as “fibril forming”, type 1 collagen is the most common collagen in both bodies and supplements. It’s in skin, hair, nails, organs, joints, bone — you name it.
- Type II: Type 2 collagen is the main component of cartilage.
- Type III: Often accompanying type I, type III collagen is present (as reticular fibers) in organs and bone marrow.
- Type IV: Type IV collagen forms the basal lumina of the basement membrane — a supportive structure that sits beneath your skin.
- Type V: The interstitial matrix — a collection of cells that link organ and muscle tissue — is composed of type V collagen.
Most collagen supplements — chicken, marine, and bovine collagen — contain mostly type I collagen. Type I is the most common, most researched, and most bioavailable form of this protein.
Along with type I, bovine collagen also contains types III and IV. For this reason — and a couple others — cows represent the best source of collagen protein. More on bovine collagen later.
Knowing all of this, what exactly should you look for in a collagen supplement?
When shopping for collagen, look for “hydrolyzed collagen”, “collagen peptides”, “hydrolyzed collagen peptides” — or some variation. They all mean the same thing.
Hydrolyzed collagen is the most researched, and best absorbed form of the supplement. A quick explanation now on how it’s made.
How Collagen Peptides Are Made
You’re sitting on a pile of bovine, marine, or chicken connective tissue. How do you turn that mass of flesh into a collagen supplement?
- Break down the tissue via hydrolysis (in water) with the aid of enzymes (like pepsin), acids (like citric acid), or neutral compounds (like table salt)
- Blast this pre-treated collagen with ultrasound waves for further decomposition
- Remove the minerals, extract the liquid
- Filter the liquid to remove large molecules
- Turn liquid into solid powder through a process called precipitation
Fun fact: you need 1 kilogram of connective tissue to make 12 grams of collagen[*]. That’s a staggeringly tiny 1.2% yield — and it’s why good collagen supplements aren’t easy on your wallet.
Gelatin is cheaper than collagen, but it’s made differently — and the resulting powder gels when combined with water. Great for thickening stews, but less researched and potentially less digestible. Stick with hydrolyzed collagen.
Okay, besides the “hydrolyzed” and “peptides” nomenclature, what else should you look for in a collagen supplement?
There are scores of collagen products out there. Here’s what to look for when choosing yours:
#1 Clean Ingredients
Manufacturers often add sugar, fillers, or artificial flavors to collagen protein powder. These ingredients, unfortunately, have effects on your gut microbiome — negatively impacting the trillions of bacteria that help you digest, fight infection, and produce neurotransmitters[*].
Instead look for gluten free, non-gmo, and — if you’re kosher — a kosher sticker on the label.
You want products with natural flavors, non-gmo ingredients, organic powders, and healthy sweeteners like:
- Cocoa powder
- Vanilla bean extract
- Monk fruit extract
Or simply opt for a product with collagen as the sole ingredient on the label. Can’t go wrong there.
#2 Comes From Cows
Bovine collagen, made from the connective tissue of cows, is the most popular type of collagen on the market. It’s also the most researched, benefiting — among other things — bone and skin health[*][*].
Bovine collagen contains type I, type III, and type IV collagen — giving you a broad spectrum of benefits. The next best collagen is probably fish collagen (marine collagen), rich in type I.
Avoid chicken collagen. There are contamination concerns.
The product should specify “bovine collagen” on the ingredients label. If it doesn’t, find one that does.
#3 Grass-Fed Source
Responsible companies derive collagen from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows.
Despite rumors to the contrary, grass-fed and grain-fed collagen are nutritionally indistinguishable. While it’s true that grass-fed beef has more CLA, vitamin A, and omega 3s than grain-fed beef — these differences don’t translate to collagen powder.
However, buying grass-fed collagen:
- Casts a vote against factory farming
- Supports local farmers
- Helps prevents antibiotic resistance from spreading
- Improves the welfare of cows
Look for “grass-fed” or “pasture-raised” on the packaging. It should be front and center.
#4 Positive Reviews
These days, in the golden age of online reviews, you needn’t buy anything on faith.
Collagen is no different. Pro tip: anything below four stars (out of five) should warrant suspicion. Shop wisely.
#5 Proper Dosage
When reading labels, pay attention to the quantity of collagen per serving. Research suggests that 10 grams of collagen is the minimum effective dose[*].
But don’t let that stop you from taking more, especially if you have a pressing need for collagen synthesis.
There’s no known lethal dose of collagen. You can overdo anything of course, but upwards of 50 grams collagen per day should be well-tolerated.
Collagen agrees with most people because it’s non-immunogenic. Food intolerance or allergy are unlikely.
Vegans and vegetarians should avoid most collagen supplements, as they come from animal tissue. Synthetic, plant-derived collagens (from barley, maize, and tobacco) do exist, but their efficacy is questionable[*].
Okay, so you’ve purchased hydrolyzed, grass-fed, bovine collagen protein powder. How should you take it?
Some report that taking collagen on an empty stomach promotes a feeling of relaxation, but collagen can be taken anytime, with or without food..
In general, however, your diet should contain certain nutrients — known as cofactors — that facilitate collagen synthesis in your body.
There are a handful of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids required for collagen synthesis. Glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline are three aminos that collagen powder provides in spades.
The remaining cofactors must come through diet or supplementation. Here are the main ones:
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C helps connect the amino acids of a collagen molecule. You don’t need much vitamin C for collagen synthesis. As little as 10 milligrams per day prevents deficiency, an amount easily obtained by eating vegetables or citrus fruits[*].
- Lysine: Unlike glycine and proline, lysine — crucial for collagen synthesis — is an essential amino acid, and must come through diet[*]. Meat, fish, and whey protein are all good sources.
- Vitamin A: Retinol, the active form of vitamin A, helps skin cells grow and differentiate[*]. Get vitamin A from liver, pastured butter, and fatty fish.
- Vitamin E: Vitamin E is a powerful molecule that helps protect your skin (and other organs) from oxidative damage. It also prevents excess collagen accumulation on organ tissue[*]. Olive oil, avocados, almonds, hazelnuts, and palm oil are all rich in vitamin E.
- Lutein and Zeaxanthin: The carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin keep your eyes healthy in two ways[*]:
- By preventing free radicals from damaging your retina
- By improving the integrity of retinal collagen
Eat kale, spinach, and dandelion greens to get these potent antioxidants in your system.
As always, try to get these cofactors through diet. Nutrients are best absorbed from whole food– a concept called “food synergy”[*].
Keto Collagen Boosters
Most collagen supplements come in powder form. These products may contain sugar or artificial sweeteners. Not healthy, and definitely not keto.
The best collagen supplements contain only collagen, or keto-friendly ingredients.
Take MCT oil. If you’re on a ketogenic diet, adding MCT oil to your collagen smoothie adds healthy fat calories and boosts ketone production[*]. Ketones like beta hydroxybutyrate (BHB) help lower inflammation, keep blood sugar low, and aid in fat loss efforts.
Perfect Keto Collagen comes pre-packaged with MCT oil powder. One less ingredient to throw in the blender.
Bars, gummies, drinks, and candies may also contain collagen. Read the label. Make sure it’s clean.
Perfect Keto Bars are a fine example. They contain 10 grams of collagen, plenty of ketogenic fat, and nothing fake.
Ideas and Recipes For Adding More Collagen
If you drink liquid, you’ll have no trouble adding collagen into your diet. You can scoop and stir collagen into:
- Smoothies (like this Keto Chocolate Smoothie)
- Coffee (like Keto Bulletproof Coffee or Keto Frappuccino)
- Black, green, herbal, or chai tea
- Hot chocolate
- Coconut milk
- Almond milk
And if you’re pressed for time, you can always shovel collagen into a cool glass of water and gulp it down. It’s flavorless.
You can also add collagen to snacks and desserts. Consider the following sweet-tooth satisfiers:
- Collagen Mug Cake
- Snack bars, like Perfect Keto Bars
- Collagen combined with nut butter (roll into balls for portable snacks)
- Chocolate chip cookies (here’s a keto-friendly recipe)
- Keto pancakes (chocolate pancake recipe)
In the savory realm, you might try:
- Bone broth or soup (just add collagen powder)
- Scrambled eggs with collagen
- Any sauce or scramble that needs more thickness or texture
Since collagen is tasteless, you can add to any recipe without marring the original flavor. Get creative with it.
Every day, it seems, a new collagen supplement is born. This is to be expected in a growing, multi-billion dollar industry.
Over-the-top marketing aside, many collagen claims are true. Hydrolyzed collagen is a proven health food for skin care, healing, sleep, longevity — the list goes on. Most could benefit from supplementation.
But as with any consumer product, there’s plenty of variance in quality. Some products have artificial flavors, others aren’t even collagen. And more than a few are sourced from factory farms.
You know what to do. Look for bovine, grass-fed, hydrolyzed collagen peptides. Read the label, read reviews, then choose your collagen.
Finally, take at least 10 grams per day and enjoy firmer skin, sounder sleep, and better health.