New technology has paved the way for vegan collagen supplements, but can they work as effectively as the animal-derived version?

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Until now the term ‘vegan collagen’ has been a contradiction in terms. Collagen only exists in animals - that includes us - and is the main protein in our skin and connective tissues. Collagen supplements are a booming industry, with the powders and drinks we’ve been popping in the hopes of our boosting our skin all made up of, primarily, collagen peptides from fish or cow tissues. So far there has not been an equivalent suitable for vegans, because, quite simply, plants don’t make collagen and therefore a plant-based vegan collagen was an impossibility.

Supplements calling themselves ‘vegan collagen’ have to date mostly been a mixture of ingredients that may potentially boost collagen production in the body, such as vitamin C and zinc.

But now, advances in biotech (no doubt to meet demand) have found a way to lab-create ‘bio-identical vegan collagen’, a compound that exactly mimics the amino acid structure that animal collagen cells are made up of. In other words, it's man-made collagen, created entirely from plant sources: the amino acids in the plant collagen molecule are the same as in the animal collagen molecule, but they have been individually extracted from plants.

Collagen peptides, when taken as supplements, are thought to have an effect on your collagen stores, which decline from your twenties onwards, and more rapidly at times of high collagen burn rate, such as menopause, sun exposure or intense exercise.

“With vegan collagen, the biotechnology used is new and cutting edge,” says Dr Johanna Ward, the GP and aesthetic doctor behind Zenii London supplements. “We don’t have any randomised control trials or systemic reviews [which are medical evidence of effectivity] yet, but we do know that vegan collagen peptides work in a similar way to animal ones if they are a bio-match to the collagen-1 [the most abundant type of collagen in the human body] molecule”.

Earlier this year, the ‘first-ever vegan liquid collagen supplement’ Revive Collagen Vegan was launched and now Dr Ward (whose Skin Fusion marine collagen drink is recommended by industry leaders such as Dr Sophie Shotter) has introduced a 'Beauty Glow' vegan collagen drink, with a powdered vegan collagen to follow.

Animal collagen supplements are controversial not just because they’re made up of fish or cow cartilage and other ‘waste’ animal matter (even non-vegans may find this a tad icky). The debate about whether the benefits of collagen supplements are real remains lively. So how do their plant-based siblings compare, and are they worth investing in?

How does vegan collagen work?

As Dr Ward says, the new bio-identical vegan collagens are claimed to work in exactly the same way as most animal-based collagen supplements: as signalling molecules to prompt your body to make new collagen. “When collagen peptides are detected in the bloodstream [which is the ‘transport route’ to vital organs after nutrients pass through the gut], they signal to the fibroblast cells [cells that produce collagen in the body] that there has been some kind of minor trauma or damage,” says Dr Ward.

It, she says, results in the up-regulation of collagen production, with the collagen peptides acting as the key to turn on the body’s collagen machinery. In addition, she says, the specific amino acids such as proline and glycine that make up the collagen peptides (whether they’re from animal or vegetal sources) act as the building blocks of this fresh collagen, “so it’s a win-win. If you don’t eat plenty of protein sources that are rich in these ‘skin’ amino acids (that means bone broth or animals eaten from head to toe, with skin, cartilage and all), or take a collagen supplement, it’s easy to get low on them,” says Ward.

How much vegan collagen should a product contain to be effective?

It’s generally accepted that for an animal collagen supplement to have a chance of working and delivering a therapeutic dose to the bloodstream (which is not as easy as it might seem), a single serving needs to contain a whopping 10.000mg is (10g) of collagen peptides. For vegan collagen, admits Ward, “we don’t quite know yet what the clinically evidenced dose will be. But at Zenii, we’ve opted for a 5000mg (5g) dose”.

What is the best vegan collagen on the market?

In the race to create the perfect vegan collagen for oral supplements, several amino acid-based collagen ‘copies’ have been created. Zenii’s is proprietary (ie they have made it themselves rather than bought from a supplier). The brand is also soon to launch a collagen powder based another, bought-in amino acid-based vegan collagen called Vollagen (see what they did there?). Apparently, it has shown 'incredible results in 60 days' - but in consumer trials, not clinical ones. Meanwhile, Revive Vegan Collagen uses Vecollal, yet another trademarked collagen ‘copy’ you’ll probably see pop up in other vegan collagen supplements in the future. The ingredient is backed by a small placebo-controlled trial on 15 people that showed significant improvements in wrinkle reduction and collagen density when taking 3.88g (3880mg) a day for four weeks.

More versions will probably follow. The thing to consider will probably not be the make of vegan collagen in your supplement (although any that have clinical trials to show their effectivity are probably your best bet)  but whether it is included in a dose proven to show results (once we know what that dose is, of course)  and whether it’s combined with the correct co-factors to really make a difference.

What about other ‘vegan collagen’ formulas without ‘collagen’ peptides?

But just because these new vegan collagens are bio-identical to our own, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re more effective than the other, more long-standing concept of vegan collagen supplementation, which is to find a plant-based complex of nutrients to rev up collagen production. David Hyland of award-winning Ingenious Beauty collagen supplements goes so far as to say that the new collagen-mimicking amino acid compounds are a red herring: “the reason we age is not because of a lack of amino acids – we are not short on these,” he says. The reason for ageing is the breakdown of the fibroblasts which then become less efficient at making collagen. So, flooding the body the body with more amino acids does not make the fibroblasts more efficient. They are not addressing the cause of the problem.”

Hyland says that whole collagen peptides, not their constituent amino acids, can signal to the body to make more collagen when they are detected in the blood. But the fallacy of the majority of collagen supplements is that these peptides on the whole don’t survive the gut environment and inevitably get broken up into amino acids before they reach the blood. These may indeed be the building blocks of collagen, but, says Hyland, they will do precious little to kick-start new collagen production.

It's why Ingenious’ marine (fish) collagen supplements boast ‘enteric’ capsules designed to ferry collagen peptides undamaged through the gut and to the lower intestine, where they get picked up by the bloodstream. The intact peptides do, say the company, what their amino acids can’t: switch on that ‘collagen machinery’. They have an independent clinical trial backing this up.

Putting little stock in amino acids, Ingenious’ Vegan Collagen instead uses a proprietary complex of, says the press release, ‘Chinese herbal enzymes clinically proven to increase the synthesis of new collagen’ alongside a phalanx of collagen co-factors, vitamins and minerals, to ‘fix the collagen factory.’ 

As with animal and vegan collagen, these ingredients are purified and fractionated (turned into small ‘fractions’) to allow for better absorption. Time will tell which approach (amino acids or fibroblast-stimulating nutrients) wins out in effectiveness. But it is important to remember that just because an ingredient is similar, or even identical, to collagen, it’s not necessarily going to successfully plump out your skin. That's because 'loose' amino acids are distributed to any essential organs that need building blocks for repair: they are in no way guaranteed to tend specifically to the needs of collagen-depleted skin.

The best vegan collagen supplements

Best for a high dose of vegan collagen: Zenii Beauty Glow Vegan Collagen, £65 for 500ml

Boasting a proprietary vegan collagen equivalent made up of seven amino acids (all found in human collagen) at 5000mg per serving, a bottle contains 20 ‘shots’ of liquid collagen that also features big collagen co-factors such as vitamin C, MSM and hyaluronic acid. Like any good collagen supplement, it may not only plump out skin but strengthen brittle nails and thinning hair as well. The milky pink liquid has a not unpleasant, and not overly sweetened, fruit juice flavour and can be diluted or drunk as a shot.

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Best for an overall nutrient boost: Revive Collagen Vegan, £32.30 for a 14-day supply

These handy single-dose sachets of liquid vegan collagen contain 2500mg of Vecollal, so a bit less than the clinically-backed dose. Supportive nutrients include half the alphabet of vitamins (retinol, B6, B7, C, D and E) plus ginseng, all to protect, energise and combat stress while boosting skin health.

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Best for increasing collagen synthesis: Ingenious Vegan, £42 for a one-month supply

A synergistic blend of said-to-be fibroblast-stimulating, and therefore collagen-boosting, vegan nutrients contained in enteric capsules that facilitate delivery of the actives into the bloodstream, the brand have high hopes their vegan collagen will be as well-received as their marine version.

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Best-value vegan collagen: Starpowa Vegan Collagen Support, £20 for 60 gummies

Two of these (sugar-free) candies a day provide six amino acids including the l-lysine, which is part of the make-up of human collagen. Co-factors including zinc, vitamin C, hyaluronic acid and vitamin D3 are there to support skin regeneration as well. Makes it easy to munch your way to potentially better skin.

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Best collagen powder: Ancient + Brave Vegan Collagyn, £26.99 for a 20-day supply

The 'vegan collagen' in this powder, which your can turn into a berry-flavoured drink, has a number of amino acids found in collagen, alongside a number of ones that are not specific to collagen - so it's not a direct 'collagen copy'. But it contains prebiotics, vitamin C, vitamin D3, algae extracts and antioxidants to boost your system and hopefully your collagen machinery overall.

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