Collagen can be a confusing issue for vegans because it is something that comes in many forms and is used in a wide range of ways in various different products. The word itself is something of an umbrella term that includes all of these applications and, of course, it should be noted that collagen is something present in our own bodies.
Throughout this article, we will hopefully answer any questions vegans may have regarding collagen. We’ll start with the one that is most pressing but, as our other answers shall show in more detail, there isn’t really a simple answer, as is so often the case when it comes to foods, products or ingredients that we have looked at in our Is It Vegan? section.
Is Collagen Vegan Friendly?
There are around 30 different types of collagen and those can be processed in various ways to create other substances, whilst the initial starting material can also obtained from a range of sources. This further complicates the issue and whilst some collagen, for example gelatine, which is collagen that has undergone irreversible hydrolysis, is definitely not suitable for vegans, when it comes to other collagens, things are less straightforward.
As said, collagen, which is a protein, is naturally occurring in the human body and makes up around a quarter of the total protein within our bodies. It is the main component of connective tissue and is present in our bones, tendons, muscles, ligaments, skin, teeth, eyes, gut, hair and blood vessels.
Obviously vegans do not need to concern themselves with the collagen that they are made of but because this substance has so many roles in the human body, it is often added to medical, cosmetic and nutritional products to help with a huge range of ailments and conditions.
In the same way that collagen is found in human bones, teeth, ligaments and so on, so too is it found in the bodies of other mammals. As such, animals have traditionally been the primary source of the collagen that has been used in a whole host of products.
Collagen as Glue
The word itself is derived from the Greek kolla, meaning glue. This etymology came about because initially most glues were made by boiling collagen-rich animal parts, such as hooves and bones, in water. This was often done with horses and whilst this is far less common nowadays, many adhesives are still made using collagen from cattle, fish and other animals – often the hides/skins.
Many modern glues are now 100% chemical based, as this is cheaper and more effective. However, when it comes to collagen, the picture is different. For a long time the collagen used, for example, in collagen supplements, or in certain shampoos or moisturisers, would always have been derived from animal sources.
However, over the past 20 years or so, scientists have tried to synthesise collagen from plant sources and vegan collagen is now possible. So-called recombinant human collagen is made by growing collagen synthetically using some human collagen genes, as well as yeast and various bacteria.
This now means that certain products do indeed use vegan collagen and so it isn’t always easy to be sure whether a given make-up, shampoo or item is vegan friendly. As vegan collagen remains relatively rare we feel confident that any manufacturer that is using it will be doing so to appeal to the vegan market. Consequently products employing it will almost certainly be marketed and labelled as such.
Look For Items Labelled as Vegan Friendly
The obvious flip side of that is that if an item doesn’t clearly state that it is vegan friendly than you can safely assume that it isn’t and that the collagen has been derived from animals in the traditional way.
Lastly, however, it is worth noting that many products that promote themselves as collagen may not contain collagen at all, either from vegan or non-vegan sources. Be they collagen drinks, powders, creams or supplements, many products marketed as collagen are somewhat misleading, as we will discuss later on. Rather than containing collagen itself, they instead contain ingredients and nutrients purported to boost or support the collagen in your body, which is very different.
Vegan Sources of Collagen
As stated, collagen occurs naturally in the body but, as we age, collagen production reduces and the amount in our skin and other areas drops. Other factors, including UV rays from the sun can reduce our collagen levels and this can have a range of impacts, including reducing the elasticity in our skin, causing sagging and wrinkles.
Collagen isn’t present in any vegan-friendly foods. That said, whilst it is found in animals, eating meat doesn’t directly provide the body with collagen. Instead, both vegans and non-vegans should look to make sure they are eating the right foods to provide the body with the blend of amino acids the body needs in order to produce collagen.
Collagen is made up of amino acids bound together into fibrils and so by making sure you eat the right vegan proteins you give your body the right materials to produce collagen itself. These amino acids are indeed found in meat, dairy and eggs, but there are lots and lots of brilliant vegan sources of them too. The three amino acids most prevalent in collagen are lysine, proline and glycine, so there certainly seems to be logic in making sure you are eating plenty of those.
Best Foods for Maximising Collagen Production & Retention
Most vegans who are eating a healthy and balanced range of foods are likely to be getting these anyway but the following foods are great options if you want to give yourself the best chance of maximising your collagen production and retention.
Note that it isn’t just the amino acids that are needed to help collagen production. Various other minerals and vitamins are also thought to be required, either to produce pro-collagen (the body’s precursor to collagen itself), to help the body retain existing collagen, or to help the synthesis of this protein.
|Citrus Fruits||High in vitamin C, which has been linked to production of pro-collagen|
|Tropical Fruits & Berries||Also great sources of vitamin C|
|Soy Products||Soya beans, edamame, tempeh and tofu are all high in the three key amino acids|
|Beans & Legumes||Most of these are also good sources of the relevant amino acids, especially kidney beans and black beans; Some also contain copper, which is also used by the body to produce collagen|
|Nuts & Seeds||Once again, good vegan sources of the collagen-related amino acids; Chia, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, and cashews, peanuts and pistachios are especially good; Sesame and sunflower seeds, plus cashews, and walnuts, are also good sources of copper|
|Peppers, Broccoli & Other Greens||Many veg are high in vitamin C with peppers the best source and greens including kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts also excellent|
|Garlic||Great source of sulphur, which is needed for the body to make collagen|
|Spinach & Asparagus||Great vegan sources of zinc, another micro-nutrient that is linked to collagen synthesis; Many nuts and seeds, plus some mushrooms and quinoa are also good vegan options|
Lack of Research
The foods above are all staples of a healthy vegan diet and they will certainly provide a range of excellent and essential nutrients. However, we have labelled the column in the table above “possible benefits” for a reason. Much of the science behind what impacts the diet can have on collagen is limited.
There are lots of studies that show certain links and possible benefits and others that show that a serious deficiency might have a negative impact. However, there are few, if any, fully randomised trials that have proven beyond any doubt that eating the foods above will directly improve the collagen levels within the human body. It has been argued that the body’s digestive system and acids metabolise the collagen-linked proteins in the stomach before they can actually have any impact on collagen and skin health and elasticity.
Right now, there just isn’t enough evidence to suggest eating the foods above will directly improve you collagen levels. That said, there is a lot of evidence that shows the food above will offer a huge selection of nutrients and antioxidants. Many of these could help protect your skin and body in other ways, whilst also giving it the best chance possible to preserve its existing collagen.
Vegan Collagen Supplements
We discuss the need for vegan supplements, elsewhere on the site; and of the many things that vegans may be worried about, we would suggest that collagen should be very low down the pecking order. That said, if you do want to take vegan collagen supplements, there are certainly a wide range to choose from.
Well, that’s not strictly true. If you search “vegan collagen supplements”, Google will deliver almost 18m results. Many of these offer information whilst some offer the option to buy supplements. Whilst some of the many creams, powders and pills available may actually contain vegan collagen, the overwhelming majority do not because for now at least, vegan collagen is very uncommon.
Some of supplements may contain animal-derived collagen and so are clearly not vegan friendly. Many others will not actually contain collagen at all but will instead claim to improve or support natural collagen production, or alternatively, to help maintain and protect existing collagen.
We would be wary of such products, which isn’t to say that they don’t work but simply that once again there isn’t enough evidence to support them just yet. Eating lots of beans, nuts, vitamin C, seeds and greens as part of a wider diet in the hope it might help your body produce collagen is one thing. However, buying a supplement that by and large contains the same nutrients but costs more and doesn’t deliver the same overall benefits is a very different matter.