The Ugly, if Unsurprising, Truth About Collagen

The promise of eternal health and beauty comes at a steep price for animals, people and the environment.

woman posing with supplement and water glass, collagen explainer

Reported Health Lifestyle

Jennifer Anniston swears by it, and so does Kate Hudson. Over the past decade or so, hype for collagen has caused a proliferation of products across supermarket shelves. Whether it’s in the form of powders, gummies, pills, energy drinks, coffee creamers or high-priced skin serums, a dizzying array of products now proudly promote collagen as a key ingredient, hoping to entice customers with the promise of eternal youth and wellness. Demand for collagen has skyrocketed in recent years, jumping from a $3.5 billion market in 2018 to a $9.12 billion market in 2022. If it continues to grow 10 percent per year as predicted — the collagen market could be worth nearly $20 billion by 2030

With futuristic-sounding names like Wellnex, Replenwell and Fortibone, collagen is touted as a kind of miracle product that can do everything from erase the signs of aging to regenerate bones, treat severe burns and help injured athletes heal faster. But what about the evidence? Even though the purported health benefits of collagen remain unproven, the frenzied demand for this ingredient sourced mainly from cow hides has fueled deforestation, displaced Indigenous communities and bolstered the factory farm system. 

The promise of eternal health and beauty comes at a steep price for animals, people and the environment.

Where Does Collagen Come From? 

Collagen is a fibrous structural protein found in the bones, cartilage and skin of all mammals, making it one of the most abundant proteins on this earth. The human body produces collagen naturally, as it’s essential to overall joint, bone and skin health. As collagen production slows with age, however, skin loses elasticity and bone mass declines, leading to wrinkles and weaker bones. Certain diseases or deficiencies can also hamper the body’s innate ability to make collagen on its own.

For consumers looking to fight the signs of aging or maintain joint and bone health, an external source of collagen holds endless appeal. Yet shoppers may not realize that the collagen found in supplements and beauty products is derived almost entirely from the skin and bones of animals. Most collagen on the market is extracted from the hides of cows, which are stripped, cleaned and hydrolyzed, a process that breaks down long collagen molecules into shorter strands called peptides, to be more readily absorbed by the human body. Once the collagen is extracted and turned into a fine white powder, it can then be sold to one of the many companies across the world making supplements, drinks and beauty products that fill supermarket aisles and department store shelves.

In this respect, collagen is similar to gelatin, which is typically sourced by boiling the hooves of cows and pigs. Several of the leading collagen manufacturers, including Rousselot (which is owned by the Texas health giant, Darling Ingredients), Nitta Gelatin and Gelnex, all got their start manufacturing gelatin. Most of these companies continue to manufacture both products using the skin, bones and hooves of animals obtained from the slaughterhouse floor.  

Debunking the Byproduct Myth Behind Collagen

Like gelatin, tallow and leather, collagen is often presented as a byproduct of factory farm meat production. U.S.-based collagen companies like Vital Proteins (owned by Nestlé) and Natural Force proudly tout their collagen products as a sustainable way to reduce waste — by repurposing the parts of a slaughtered animal that would otherwise be discarded in a landfill or turned into animal feed. 

But calling these products a “byproduct” ignores the crucial role they play in keeping industrialized animal agriculture profitable. Byproducts aren’t a sustainable solution to the nagging problem of waste. They’re a profitable component of the factory farm supply chain. 

Because margins in the meat industry are so tight, the business model explicitly depends on marketing non-edible parts of the animal. Meat only accounts for about a third of a slaughtered cow’s weight. The profitability of cattle operations therefore depends on effectively using the remaining three-quarters of that animal. Reporting by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigation Journalism earlier this year found that up to a quarter of a meatpacker’s annual income comes from non-meat animal products. As long as there is a market for products like leather and collagen, the factory farmed system will remain profitable. 

What Are the Environmental Impacts of Collagen? 

Collagen manufacturing then isn’t so much a business built on leftovers and waste but a moneymaker that fuels systems and practices known to be harmful to both animals and the planet. Livestock production is one of the largest sources of methane emissions in the world — and cattle ranching in particular is responsible for 80 percent of the deforestation in the Amazon. 

Earlier this year, a landmark investigation by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism revealed the direct link between collagen production and the destruction of Amazon rainforests. As demand for collagen boomed in recent years, more and more Brazilian rainforests were destroyed to make way for cattle pastures, the investigation found, displacing Indigenous communities, destroying areas rich in biodiversity and fueling climate change

The investigation linked the American company Darling Ingredients to at least 2,600 square kilometers of deforestation. Darling Ingredients supplies collagen to Nestlé, which owns Vital Proteins, a popular brand sold at Target and Amazon. Since the reporting, Vital Proteins has revised the social responsibility statement on their website to include a commitment to attaining “a deforestation-free primary supply chain” by 2025. 

The investigation also found links between major collagen manufacturers Gelnex and abattoirs that source their cattle from pastures encroaching on the Indigenous lands of the Mãe Maria and Guarani Kaoiwá Indigenous community. 

Marine collagen — or collagen derived from fish skins — isn’t much better in terms of its environmental, human rights and animal welfare impact. Though collagen companies like Wellnex (which is owned by Nitta Gelatin) claim that their marine collagen is “good for you and the ocean too,” marine collagen relies on a vast and corrupt industry linked to lethal bycatch, human trafficking and the continued decimation of oceans and marine life

Does the Science Hold Up? 

Despite the claims made by collagen companies and celebrities like Jennifer Anniston and Kate Hudson, the science on collagen is far from clear. Though some randomized control trials have found that collagen supplements improve skin elasticity, hydration and wrinkling, most of these studies were funded by collagen companies or related industries, and research was inconclusive on whether these improvements were due to collagen alone or to the other minerals, vitamins and acids contained in the tested supplements. Some other trials have found that oral collagen supplements can improve joint mobility and decrease joint pain caused by osteoporosis and other ailments.

Are There Cruelty-Free Alternatives? 

As the possibilities of lab-cultured meat alternatives continue to grow, so does the promise of bio-designed collagen. Companies like Geltor and Aleph Farms are leading the charge, developing cell-cultured collagen alternatives that could replace the need for animal-derived collagen products and, in doing so, reduce the cruelty and environmental impact that stems from the current collagen industry. 

But there is no need to wait for lab-grown collagen before you stop relying on animal products. Plant-based foods like soy and legumes are known to help stimulate collagen production in the body. You can also boost collagen production by upping your intake of zinc, found in foods like legumes, whole grains and nuts, and vitamin C, found in citrus fruits, leafy greens and tomatoes. Even simple life-style changes can protect the collagen already in your body. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, wearing sunscreen, getting adequate sleep, minimizing stress and avoiding smoking can all help protect your body’s natural collagen production.

Despite the fervor from the beauty and pharmaceutical industry, collagen is not some holy grail offering eternal health and youth in the form of a single, lab-made supplement or powder. Collagen production poses a direct threat to animals, people and the environment — all when the evidence is still lacking that it can deliver on any of the questionable promises the industry makes to consumers.

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