We’ve been fielding many questions about collagen lately so we thought it would be helpful to write a blog article on this popular supplement and it’s counterpart, gelatin. Touted for their ability to heal everything from our gut to our joints, while improving our skin, hair and nails, you’ve probably seen gelatin and collagen used interchangeably. While they’re similar, there are some key differences. We will explore the benefits, indications, and what you need to be aware of when choosing these supplements.
HOW THEY DIFFER:
COLLAGEN can be compared to a scaffolding that provides structure, elasticity and strength for our connective tissues, specifically: bones, tendons, cartilage, hair, nails, skin, and the lining of our digestive system. Collagen is the predominant protein in our bodies and in the tissues of the animals we consume. When we cook down these animal proteins (typically when making a broth), the collagen breaks down into gelatin.
Eating raw collagen in the form of tough ligaments and connective tissues are not only difficulty to consume but highly unenjoyable. So in order to best break down and absorb collagen, it is put through a process to extract the essential nutrients so that they easily metabolized in our system. The most common form is referred to as completely hydrolyzed collagen or collagen peptides.
GELATIN, is cooked collagen, and is the form of collagen found in bone broth. The partial hydrolyzing and drying of the bones and tissue is what forms gelatin powder. Because gelatin has not been broken down into individual peptides, its protein structure elicits an adhesive quality, causing it to gel when cooled. This is how Jell-O gets its signature jiggle, and why gelatin has many culinary uses such as thickening gravies and sauces, making marshmallow, fruit snacks, jams, etc..
If you take gelatin and hydrolyze it even further, breaking the amino acid strands into individual peptides (though the amino acids themselves still intact), you are left with completely hydrolyzed collagen, which can be easily digested and absorbed by the body. This is the form that is most commonly found in collagen supplements, both in capsules or powder.
Simply put, the differences between collagen and gelatin come down to how they’re processed. The processing method is what gives collagen and gelatin different textures. Whether you choose gelatin or collagen comes down to how you want to use it and which form of your body responds best to. That being said gelatin can be harder to digest for some and at higher doses may cause digestive distress.
WHAT THEY HAVE IN COMMON:
Collagen and gelatin are similar in terms of their benefits because they contain the same amino acid profile. Amino acids are the “building blocks” of proteins that play a key role in our health and well-being. The most predominant amino acids that comprise collagen are glycine and proline. Glycine and proline not only give connective tissue throughout the body its strength and durability, but they are also anti-inflammatory, which benefits our systemic health in many ways.
BENEFITS – The Research:
(Compiled by Dr. Dori Engel, ND in Toronto)
Joint Health: Collagen can regenerate the synovial fluid that cushions joints, repair and rebuild cartilage weakened through overuse, impact and stress – thereby reducing joint pains & reversing degeneration – its natural gel structure is the element that allows joints to glide & move without pain. (Bruyere O, 2012) In people with Rheumatoid arthritis, it decreases swelling and pain in tender affected joints. (Trentham DE, 1993) (Barnett ML, 1998)
Osteoarthritis: This is another area where this product has been studied extensively for both treatment and prevention. (Crowley DC, 2009) Collagen can help combat your genetic predisposition to degenerative diseases. (Bello AE, 2006)
Sports Performance: It’s not only for the old and deteriorating. Many studies have been done on healthy, young athletes. The results show that collagen supplementation can reduce the incidences of pain from repetitive use in otherwise healthy individuals and reduce the risk of joint deterioration in this high risk group. (Clark KL, 2008) (Zdzieblik D, 2017)
Skin health: By increasing collagen levels, skin cells are repaired and renewed and skin looks firmer & smoother. The appearance of cellulite & stretch marks are reduced. (Oba C, 2015) (Proksh E, 2014)
It improves elasticity, barrier integrity & hydration in sun exposed skin too. (Yoon HS, 2014) (Inoue N, 2016)
Hot tip – Although collagen is present in many topical beauty products, it is of mild benefit in this form as does not we can’t absorb it sufficiently through the skin. It must be ingested to get the ultimate benefit. Save your money for the powder; don’t spend it on the creams!
Bone Health: Osteoporosis is when bone mass is lost more rapidly than is typical. People over the age of 70 generally have decreased bone density and increased risk of injury. Hydrolyzed collagen stimulates chondrocytes – human cartilage producing cells – preventing age-related bone density reduction. (Bello AE, 2006)
Digestive Health: Leaky gut or Intestinal hyperpermeability – This protein soothes the gut lining, reducing inflammation and healing damaged cell walls, sealing & regenerating the tissue that lines the GI tract. Long term effects include being able to digest more foods and absorb nutrients more efficiently. (Koutroubakis IE, 2003)
Hair Health: Actual reduction and reversal of hair loss – 180 days of collagen supplementation in women with thinning hair resulted in improvements in hair volume, scalp coverage, shine & thickness. (Glynis A, 2012)
Our body’s collagen production begins to slow down as we age, causing the tell-tale signs of aging, such as wrinkles, sagging skin and joint pains. Collagen content in human skin decreases by 1% per year beginning in our 20s. Sun exposure, smoking, stress, lack of sleep, high blood sugar, diabetes – all of these decrease collagen and make the collagen that we are left with less pliable. Some autoimmune disorders can also target collagen, lending to a decrease in the amount of collagen secreted, or to the secretion of dysfunctional collagen (called keloid formation – thick scarring).
Foods both high in vitamin C and sulfur contain nutrients that are essential to collagen production. Omitting or limiting sugar is helpful in preserving collagen, as sugar destroys collagen and elastin.
Beware that not all brands are the same. Since collagen and gelatin are procured from animals, it is essential that it is organically raised and ethically sourced. Look for grass-fed, organic, hormone-free beef or chicken sources. Also, many collagen and gelatin supplements are not well absorbed based on how they are processed. My favorites are:
- Great Lakes Hydrolysate – powder (mixes in hot or cold water) sourced from 100% grass-fed bovine. Look at recipe ideas on their website.
- Arthred by Allergy Research Group – ethically raised bovine (powder) sprinkle it on oatmeal, blend it into smoothies or bulletproof coffee.
- JS Collagen by Pure Encapsulation – chicken sternum cartilage (capsules)
The last two are available through our online dispensary, Fullscript.
When it comes to gelatin, the chemically-made and vaguely fruit-flavored packs of gelatin you typically find in the supermarket aren’t going to provide you with the health benefits of real gelatin. I would recommend Vital Proteins gelatin, made from non-GMO, grass-fed bovine.
And don’t forget, in addition to supplements, you can also get collagen and gelatin in your diet the original way: by drinking bone broth. The simmering time of the bones (up to 24 hours) allows collagen and gelatin to be released into the broth.
Collagen is safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding. It’s safe for kids, the elderly and people with chronic health conditions. There is no risk with long term use. It is a whole food product – so it’s more food than supplement or protein powder. It is an animal product however, so not suitable for vegetarians.
While there are many health benefits to taking collagen and gelatin; keep in mind, thinning hair, brittle nails, GI distress, joint pain, etc. could point to an underlying health concern. Work with your health team (we’re happy to assist you here at HCH) to further assess and address any underlying condition that may be contributing to your symptom picture.
Bone Broth Recipe:
The best bones to use are those from pastured animals, as they will yield the most gelatin-rich, mineral dense and flavorful stock with far less toxins. To get bones to make your stock: Save leftovers from a roast, ask around at your local farmer’s market or inquire with a local butcher.
Any vegetables and flavourings can work.
3-4 lbs bony chicken parts (necks, backs, breast bones, wings).
4 qts cold water
2 Tb apple cider vinegar
1 onion, 2 celery stalks, 2 carrots
4 whole cloves garlic
2-3 pieces of sliced fresh turmeric or ginger or both
- Place bones and vegetables in a large pot.
- Cover with water. Add apple cider vinegar. Let stand for 20 minutes to 1 hour. This acidic solution helps release the nutrients from the bones.
- Bring to a gentle rolling boil. Remove scum that rises to the top, discard.
- Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 8 to 24 hrs.
- Let cool, strain the stock carefully.
Drink hot mugs of it or pour into glass jars and store in the fridge or freeze for later consumption.