The benefits of supplementing with collagen are well-documented at this point. By supporting your connective tissue, collagen supplements can enhance skin elasticity and hydration, improve joint pain, support bone health, and may even improve gut health[*][*][*][*].
There is no shortage of collagen powders out there to choose from, and an emerging trend has been the advent of vegan collagen.
But what exactly is vegan collagen? And how does it stack up against animal-based collagen supplements?
In this article, you’ll learn:
- What vegan collagen is, and where it comes from
- How vegan collagen works
- How vegan collagen stands up against animal-based collagen
- The environmental impacts of vegan collagen
Vegan collagen is not collagen, per se, but actually a formulation of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that can support healthy collagen production.
True collagen comes from animals (commonly bovine, chicken, or fish) and is specifically sourced from the hides and connective tissues, which is where collagen lives in the body. This form of collagen is obviously not an option for vegans, so the next best thing is to support your body’s ability to produce collagen by adding targeted nutrients into your diet.
Vegan collagen supplements work by supporting your body’s natural collagen production with superfoods and targeted nutrients. While taking an animal-based collagen supplement can directly supply your body with the amino acids it needs to build collagen internally; vegan collagen assists this process through other avenues.
For instance, many vegan collagen supplements include natural vegan collagen boosters like silica, vitamin A and aloe vera, along with antioxidants to combat free radicals. In addition, nutrients like biotin and hyaluronic acid are often included to further support the health of your connective tissue.
Therefore, even though vegan collagen doesn’t directly contribute to the amino acid pool that your body needs to create collagen, it indirectly supports collagen production.
Silica, for example, helps support the building blocks for collagen by activating specific enzymes and is especially useful in the maintenance of healthy skin, hair, and nails[*]. Aloe vera, on the other hand, has been shown to directly increase the production of collagen in your skin when taken orally[*]. And vitamin A is a natural collagen builder that stimulates collagen synthesis while simultaneously protecting your connective tissue from damage[*].
Oxidative stress is one of the most damaging processes to your connective tissue. Free radicals can disrupt the normal structure and function of collagen and other proteins that make up your connective tissue and instigate chemical cascades that result in inflammation and degradation[*][*][*].
For this reason, many vegan collagen suppliers add in antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E to help combat the potential damage from free-radicals[*].
Vitamin C also plays a crucial role in collagen production, making it an essential add-in for many vegan collagen supplements[*].
So which is better, animal-based collagen, which provides the amino acids that your body needs as direct building blocks to collagen production, or vegan collagen, which provides the supporting nutrients?
While vegan collagen may supply many of the nutrients your body needs to support healthy collagen production, it’s missing one crucial ingredient — protein.
You could give your body all the cofactors it needs to produce collagen, but if you don’t have enough of the primary building blocks (amino acids), there is nothing for those nutrients to work with.
Collagen is made up of several amino acids, with glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline being the most abundant[*].
While you can find glycine and proline in plant-based foods, they are much more abundant in foods that come from animal origin. In particular, foods that contain collagen, like gelatin, pork skin, and beef[*][*].
Hydroxyproline, on the other hand, is nearly impossible to find in plant-based foods[*].
Furthermore, even if you do get a significant amount of proline and glycine into your diet from plant-based sources, they may not be absorbed and assimilated as well as animal-based sources of amino acids. Generally speaking, animal-based protein has a higher bioavailability, which means that it’s not only richer in amino acids, but your body metabolizes and absorbs it more efficiently as well[*].
Of course, there is the argument that your body produces collagen on its own, so why do you need to take a collagen supplement at all?
While this is certainly true, your collagen production starts to decline around age 25. This is a natural process that comes with aging, but research shows that supplementing with collagen peptides is one way to combat some of the collagen degradation that happens as you get older[*][*][*].
One common argument that people make for vegan collagen, and veganism in general, is that it’s better for the environment. While livestock is responsible for about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions, there is a bit of a loophole when it comes to collagen[*].
Unlike consuming beef or poultry, consuming collagen is actually helping farmers utilize parts of the animals that would normally go to waste. As mentioned earlier, collagen is sourced from animals’ hide, bones, and connective tissues. This biomass is usually discarded and adds to the environmental load of animal husbandry.
By utilizing parts of the animal that would typically go to waste, consuming collagen may actually contribute to a zero-waste effort on the part of animal production. Marine collagen, in particular, has already come into the spotlight as a sustainable and environmentally friendly way to source collagen[*][*].
Vegan collagen contains collagen-building nutrients like vitamin C , vitamin A, and silica that improve the synthesis of collagen. However, these supplements still lack the essential building blocks that your body needs in order to produce collagen.
When you’re young, collagen production is robust, and there’s significantly less breakdown of connective tissues in your body. But as you age, things start to shift, and collagen synthesis slows down. This is when adding the amino acids that are abundant in collagen protein becomes crucial.
Plant foods like veggies may contain scant amounts of proline and glycine, but animal products are rich in the essential amino acids your body needs.
You can’t go wrong by supporting your body with the nutrients found in vegan collagen supplements. However, if you want to truly reap the benefits of collagen, like joint, bone, and skin health, then taking an animal-based collagen product is the way to go.