Collagen powder supports healthy joints, muscles, skin, and more.
But do you know the difference between collagen, collagen peptides, and gelatin?
One is found in your body, one is a research-backed supplement, and one is used in cooking.
The purpose of this article is to clear up any confusion around the differences between collagen and gelatin and to steer you towards the most effective supplements to get the full benefits of collagen protein.
Collagen is an extremely important natural protein found in your skin, ligaments, tendons, joints, and other types of connective tissue.
Your body produces collagen naturally from dietary proteins and individual amino acids found in the foods you eat[*].
Hydrolyzed Collagen or Collagen Peptides
The best-studied, most popular collagen supplement is collagen protein powder, also called hydrolyzed collagen or collagen peptides.
Unlike the intact collagen found in your body, this form of collagen goes through a process called hydrolysis.
The purpose of hydrolysis is to break collagen protein down into small amino acid chains called peptides, which improves absorption and makes them easier to mix in cold liquids[*].
The vast majority of collagen research we’ll discuss has investigated the effects of hydrolyzed collagen. When people talk about collagen supplements, they are generally referring to this type of collagen protein.
In the next section, you’ll learn about a different form of collagen that’s less common in the health and fitness world: gelatin.
Gelatin is a type of collagen used in cooking, food production, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, industrial applications, and more.
Unless you happen to be vegan or vegetarian, you probably encounter gelatin regularly without thinking much about it.
Similar to collagen peptides, gelatin is partially hydrolyzed (broken down) during processing. But unlike collagen supplements, the process varies depending on the intended application for gelatin[*].
The preparation affects its properties, making gelatin suitable for anything from gummy candies or marshmallows to use as a binder in drugs[*].
You can also purchase gelatin at the grocery store for use in cooking. There, you’ll find gelatin powder, sheets, and granules.
Hydrolyzed collagen is intended for use as a dietary supplement, while gelatin isn’t.
Scientifically speaking, the most significant difference between collagen protein and gelatin is the molecular weight of the proteins or peptides[*].
Because collagen supplements nearly always undergo a greater amount of hydrolysis, their peptides (amino acid chains) are lighter and shorter compared to gelatin[*]. This affects collagen protein and gelatin’s respective absorption and mixability.
One study found that compared to hydrolyzed collagen protein, gelatin absorbed more slowly and less efficiently[*].
And unlike collagen protein, most cooking gelatin requires heating and soaking before use.
Because it has a higher molecular weight, gelatin also tends to form a gel in water instead of dissolve–which isn’t very convenient if you’re drinking a protein shake on the go[*].
The typical collagen dosage is 10-11 grams, once or more per day. You can take collagen protein on an empty stomach or with other foods.
Here are the advantages of using hydrolyzed collagen:
- Faster, more efficient absorption: Hydrolyzed collagen is designed for use as a supplement, which is why it absorbs faster and better than gelatin or other forms of collagen protein[*].
- Ideal taste and texture: Unlike cooking gelatin, collagen protein powder is optimized for taste, mixability, and mouthfeel. That means it mixes easily and is easy to drink, without lumps or grit.
- Few to no side effects: Studies show that collagen protein is very user-friendly. According to a 2019 systematic review, this supplement is “generally safe with no reported adverse events”[*].
For a deeper dive into hydrolyzed collagen, read The Ultimate Guide to Hydrolyzed Collagen.
The downsides of hydrolyzed collagen are minimal. Here’s what you need to know:
- Collagen peptides are not a complete protein: Keep in mind that hydrolyzed collagen lacks tryptophan. If you were to consume collagen protein as your only protein source, you would likely develop an amino acid imbalance[*]. But as long as you limit yourself to a few 10-11g servings of collagen supplements each day and eat other forms of protein, there’s no reason for concern[*].
- It’s not ideal for post-workout recovery: Because it is low in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), collagen protein isn’t ideal as a standalone post-workout drink[*]. You can use it alongside high-quality grass-fed whey, but if you train hard, don’t rely on collagen protein as your only protein supplement.
Overall, the negatives associated with collagen protein relate to dietary collagen in general, not to hydrolyzed collagen in particular.
Some recipes call for using cooking gelatin from the grocery store. If you’re making a recipe that includes gelatin, just follow the instructions.
But when it comes to using gelatin as a supplement, there are only two potential positives associated with cooking gelatin:
- Availability: At least at the local level, gelatin is probably easier to find than high-quality collagen supplements. And if you can’t order collagen protein for some reason, you might opt for cooking gelatin to get more collagen in your diet.
- Cost: Cooking gelatin from your local store may cost half or less what collagen supplements cost. However, remember that it’s not the same as collagen protein and that you’re unlikely to find non-GMO, organic, or pasture-raised cooking gelatin (especially for a reasonable price).
And as you’ll learn in the next section, the old saying “you get what you pay for” definitely applies to cooking gelatin.
These are all the reasons you might want to second-guess using cooking gelatin in place of proper collagen protein powder:
- Lack of studies: First and foremost, none of the studies showing the amazing benefits of collagen use cooking gelatin. The research so far has focused on hydrolyzed collagen. There’s still a chance that plain gelatin could offer some of the same benefits, but there’s no way to say for sure.
- Poor absorption: A study comparing collagen peptides to gelatin found that the gelatin absorbed slower and less efficiently[*]. You might think you’re saving money going with gelatin, but that may not be the case if it’s not absorbing effectively.
- Potential for side effects: Cooking gelatin is very likely safe, but remember it’s not intended for use as a supplement. If you have a sensitive stomach, the heavy, slow-absorbing proteins in gelatin could potentially cause gastrointestinal distress.
- Bad mixability, gross taste and texture: Gelatin is difficult to mix with cold water. You may need to soak it for a long time, or even heat it. And worse, you could end up with a gritty, unflavored or meaty-tasting gel or pudding in your protein shaker.
All of the downsides above are specific to gelatin–they don’t apply to collagen protein supplements.
But similar to collagen protein supplements, gelatin is also an incomplete protein, meaning that if you do use it as a daily supplement, you should still limit yourself to a few servings of 10-11 grams to prevent amino acid imbalances[*].
Collagen or Gelatin for Hair Health and Nail Growth
Does taking collagen supplements support beautiful hair and nails? Perhaps.
A small study from 2012 found that a supplement with collagen-containing marine extracts and other ingredients resulted in “perceived improvements in overall hair volume, scalp coverage, and thickness of hair body [as well as] hair shine, skin moisture retention, and skin smoothness”[*].
Other preliminary research suggests that collagen deficiency in hair follicles leads to premature hair thinning[*]. While it’s impossible to say for sure yet, there’s a chance collagen supplements could help correct this deficiency and prevent hair thinning.
But the research is more conclusive on the subject of collagen protein increasing nail growth and reducing nail breakage.
A 2017 study found that 2.5 grams of collagen peptides, taken daily for 6 months, enhanced nail growth, decreased breakage, and led to overall improvements in nail health for participants[*].
As you can see from the 2017 study, hydrolyzed collagen may be effective for increasing the health of your nails–but there’s no mention of gelatin whatsoever.
The clear winner for hair health and nail growth is collagen protein, not gelatin
Collagen or Gelatin for Skin Health
If you want to keep your skin healthy and beautiful, numerous studies tout the benefits of collagen protein supplements, including:
- Diminishing the appearance of eye wrinkles[*]
- Increasing skin hydration[*]
- Reducing the size and appearance of pores[*]
- Reversing cellulite[*]
- Improving skin elasticity[*]
When you consider the fact that your collagen is the most abundant protein in your skin, it stands to reason that collagen protein supplements can support healthy skin.
And as with hair and nail health, there’s no mention in the research of using gelatin as a supplement in the research.
As a result, the clear choice for healthier skin is hydrolyzed collagen.
Collagen or Gelatin for Joints and Connective Tissue
If you struggle with joint pain, collagen protein powder is well worth a try.
A 2008 study concluded that 10 grams of hydrolyzed collagen, taken daily for 6 months, reduced activity-related joint pain in athletes[*].
And a separate 6-month study found that just 5 grams of collagen peptides helped with rehabilitation after ankle injury in athletes, resulting in better ankle stability and a lower injury risk[*].
But even if you’re not an athlete or particularly active, collagen protein might help relieve your joint pain.
According to a 2014 study, senior citizens with osteoarthritis who took 8 grams of hydrolyzed collagen daily for 6 months had reduced joint pain and increased mobility[*].
Similar to the previous sections, these studies focused exclusively on the use of collagen protein supplements, not gelatin.
There’s no direct study comparing hydrolyzed collagen vs. gelatin for joint health, and there’s also no evidence supporting the use of gelatin for that purpose. The winner here is collagen.
Collagen or Gelatin for Gut Health
Many people tout collagen protein for gut health purposes. Currently, though, there’s a lack of human clinical trials supporting this benefit.
It’s too early to say with any certainty, but if you have “leaky gut” or other gut health problems, collagen protein may be worth a try.
Considering the safety, superior absorption, and other benefits of hydrolyzed collagen, there’s no real downside to seeing for yourself whether it enhances your gut health.
Collagen or Gelatin for Muscles
And a study of senior citizen men found that when paired with resistance training, collagen protein may help reverse age-related loss of muscle mass[*].
There’s no doubt that collagen supplements can be one part of an effective supplement strategy for athletes and people who want to build muscle.
But keep in mind that unlike whey protein, collagen protein is an incomplete protein. And as we mentioned earlier, it’s low in BCAAs and other muscle-building amino acids.
Read Whey vs. Collagen: Health Benefits and How to Choose for more insight into why whey is a vital component of your fitness formula, whether or not you incorporate collagen protein.
Collagen or Gelatin for General Health
Boosting your collagen protein intake appears to have significant positive effects on general health, including in healthy people.
In 2017, researchers discovered that two daily doses of 8 grams of collagen protein (a total of 16 grams of collagen per day) reduced arterial stiffness and raised HDL (or “good”) cholesterol in healthy adults over 6 months, potentially lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease[*].
And a 2019 study found that only 5 grams of daily hydrolyzed collagen, taken for a month, resulted in improvements in brain structure, mental function, and memory[*].
Lastly, a 2018 double-blind clinical trial concluded that a 5-gram dose of collagen peptides caused a significant increase in bone mineral density in postmenopausal women after a year[*].
As usual, these studies show benefits in people taking collagen protein powder, not gelatin.
Collagen or Gelatin for Cooking
Cooking may be the one area where gelatin has an edge over collagen protein…sometimes.
Basically, if you have a recipe that calls for cooking gelatin, use cooking gelatin. Recipes are very specific for a reason, and substituting collagen supplements in place of gelatin might throw off the delicate balance of your dish.
At the very least, experiment ahead of time before making a substitution.
However, plenty of recipes today happen to call for collagen protein powder.
For instance, Coconut Chocolate Collagen Bars feature hydrolyzed collagen for its health benefits.
Unlike recipes that require cooking gelatin for its unique properties, the purpose of collagen protein recipes is to deliver the health benefits of collagen in a tasty, portable form.
Ultimately, if you’re unsure of which type of collagen you should use, your best bet is to simply follow the recipe for whatever you’re making.
Collagen protein powder and gelatin are completely different, and they’re intended for different purposes.
Hydrolyzed collagen powder offers superior absorption and mixability compared to gelatin, and it’s supported by peer-reviewed research for health benefits[*].
Unless you’re preparing a recipe that requires cooking gelatin, there’s no good reason to choose gelatin over collagen supplements.
That said, if you can’t find high-quality collagen protein locally and can’t buy it online for some reason, you may be able to get some of the same benefits by using cooking gelatin as a supplement.
But remember that due to its lower absorption and likely decreased benefits, you may not actually save money using gelatin in place of real collagen supplements.