Do collagen supplements work differently to heal joints and reduce wrinkles compared to regular protein?

Jacked Check – An occasional series fact checking the world of bro science

Claim: Supplementing with powdered collagen provides special benefits compared to consuming protein from typical sources, like steak.

Rating: Technically false, but with qualifications.

Conclusion: Collagen powder does not provide the body with a richer source of collagen than a steak. However, collagen powder is substantially cheaper on a per serving basis and easier to prepare. In addition, some people in specific physiological states, including endurance athletes, might need more collagen than can reasonably be consumed with a typical diet.

The Details

The only way to sort out this question is to look at protein at the molecular level.

What is protein?

Proteins are made up of hundreds or thousands of smaller units of amino acids, which are attached to one another in long chains. The sequence of amino acids determines each protein’s structure and function. 

What is an amino acid?

Amino acids are a set of 20 different molecules that combine to form proteins. Of the 20 amino acids humans need for life, our bodies can make 11 of them through various metabolic processes (nonessential amino acids), while the other nine we must consume (essential amino acids).

What is collagen?

Collagen is a protein found in the human body. The function of collagen is to provide structural support and strength in the skin, bones, and connective tissues. The majority of collagen is composed of the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, which are nonessential amino acids. Proline and glycine can become conditional essential acids during times of stress and illness, when your body is unable to produce a sufficient supply. Most likely, high intensity exercise—and certainly endurance training—count as a times of stress.

With that organic chemistry lesson out of the way, let’s follow two meals through the body and see what happens to regular protein vs. collagen.

Meal 1: A waiter brings me an 8 oz grilled skirt steak cooked medium-well

  1. I cut, chew, and swallow a piece of steak, which sets off the digestive process. My stomach’s very acidic environment works in combination with enzymes released specifically in response to meat to begin breaking down the chewed steak into amino acids (and vitamins and minerals).
  2. The meat components begin their journey into the intestines where another enzyme completes the breakdown of the meat from protein into amino acids.
  3. Further on down the small intestine, the amino acids, fatty acids, cholesterol, vitamins, and minerals from the steak are absorbed. Once in my bloodstream, my body can use these amino acids to build its own collagen.
  4. Whatever material from the meat that remains passes into the colon, losses more fluid, and then ends up in the toilet.

Meal 2: I stir powdered collagen made from cowhide into a glass of water

  1. I drink a glass of flavorless water. Enzymes in my stomach begin breaking down the collagen powder into its amino acid components.
  2. In my intestines, enzymes complete the breakdown of collagen into its amino acid components.
  3. Once in my bloodstream, my body can use these amino acids to build its own collagen.
  4. Unused material passes into the colon and out of my body.

So far, I’m not impressed.

Perhaps there is more collagen in a powder supplement than in a steak?

Glycine and proline contribute 50 percent of the total amino acids in collagen. Therefore, in a typical 20g serving of a collagen supplement, you get about 10g of these key building blocks. According to the nutrition panel on one collagen brand, there is:

  • Glycine – 4.7g
  • Proline – 2.7g

In the 8 oz steak I ate above, I got approximately:

  • Glycine – 6g
  • Proline – 4.5g

I’d mention that one 8 oz steak at a restaurant can cost you $30 or more, while thirty 20 oz servings of collagen costs about the same. It’s also true that collagen in animals is mostly found in connective tissue, tendons, ligaments, skin, cartilage, and bones. Modern diets, consisting almost exclusively of muscle meat, contain lower amounts of collagen.

Perhaps the amino acids in collagen powder are more bioavailable than in steak?

Unknown. Measuring the absorption of amino acids in humans is very complicated. Data literally does not exist on the digestibility of proteins (like steak vs. collagen powder) before they are broken down into their component amino acids.

Some digestion variables to consider:

  • True digestibility must take into account the amino acids produced in the body alongside what is being eaten.
  • The manner in which a person chews his food, and how thoroughly the meat is cooked, can have an impact on digestibility.
  • Digestion also depends on the specific physiological state of the person.

So where does this leave us?

True: People with poor skin health, slow healing, joint pain, gastrointestinal problems, and a high risk for heart disease can benefit from getting more collagen protein, from any source.

True: Powdered collagen provides a fast and easy way to consume collagen protein if your body is deficient in these nutrients. Red meat can also be expensive and time-consuming to prepare, although I’d mention that four eggs contain 6g of glycine and nearly 8g of proline.

What do I recommend?

Given that intense physical exercise might turn glycine and proline into conditional essential acids, I stock my cabinet with boxes of Trader Joe’s brand or Kettle & Fire bone broth. If nothing else, it’s a quick way to get 20g of protein.

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