You’ve probably heard the buzz around collagen supplements and your skin by now. But is the hype really that promising? After all, research has pointed to both the benefits and downsides of collagen supplements — and for many beauty-conscious folk, collagen isn’t vegan.
That’s because collagen, a protein found mostly in hair, skin, nails, bones, and ligaments, comes mostly from animal sources, such as beef or fish.
But science has discovered a way to make vegan collagen. We’re here to answer exactly how that works and how it competes.
Instead of being sourced from animals, collagen can now be made by using genetically modified yeast and bacteria.
Researchers have found that the bacteria P. pastoris, in particular, is the most effective and commonly used for genetically engineering high-quality collagen.
To produce collagen, four human genes that code for collagen are added to the genetic structure of the microbes. Once the genes are in place, the yeast or bacteria then start to produce building blocks of human collagen.
Pepsin, a digestive enzyme, is added to help structure the building blocks into collagen molecules with the exact structure of human collagen.
Once this process is complete, you have yourself vegan collagen!
The ability to make inexpensive, safe collagen sourced from microbes instead of animals has many promising applications for human health.
1. Potential lower cost for consumers
Using yeast or bacteria to produce collagen is cost effective and highly scalable in a lab environment. While it hasn’t rolled out as a mass-produced product yet, this has potential to lower the cost of collagen for all consumers and make it widely available for various uses from medical treatments to supplements.
2. Lower risk of allergies
While the biggest benefit is that no animals are harmed, there are other pros to vegan collagen, especially for folks who may have allergies.
For example, there’s some concern over the risk of transmission of illness through animal-sourced collagen. Collagen via microbes would eliminate this potential issue because it’s produced in a controlled environment where common allergens or other harmful substances can be removed.
3. Higher safety profile for products
The lab-controlled setting gives manufacturers the ability to improve the safety profile. If the source is easily traceable, it makes it a safer product for all consumers.
4. More and cheaper availability for medical procedures
There are many potential medical benefits to this technology, as collagen is used for much more than just dietary supplements.
The ability to genetically engineer collagen safely and effectively may be beneficial for many medical procedures. Collagen is commonly used:
- in dermatology for sutures
- to stimulate skin and tissue growth
- to promote wound healing
It can also serve as a vehicle for drug delivery, or for certain tumor treatments.
5. Beauty benefits for vegans
The majority of collagen supplements on the market are animal-based, which means people who live an environmentally-friendly or vegan-friendly lifestyle can’t access these products.
With vegan options available, they can now take collagen to potentially help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and stimulate their body to produce more collagen naturally as well as support joint and digestive health.
But, science is still building around these products and applications, so at this time, most of the promises around supplements can still be considered hype.
Currently, actual vegan collagen is hard to come by. Most companies sell “collagen boosters” as supplements.
These boosters contain various vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C and zinc that the body needs to make collagen.
Some may also include plant extracts and herbs that are also found to help stimulate collagen production.
You can add these vitamins and minerals through your diet, instead of a supplement, to help you meet your amino acids needs. The most abundant amino acids in collagen are glycine, lysine, and proline.
Plant-based foods high in all three amino acids include:
- soy products: tempeh, tofu, and soy protein
- black beans
- kidney beans
- many other legumes
- seeds: especially pumpkin, squash, sunflower, and chia
- nuts: pistachio, peanut, and cashew
Another way to get the benefits of collagen as a vegan is to take individual amino acid supplements. These are what many vegan-friendly companies sell instead of pure collagen supplements.
Vegan collagen options:
- myKind Organics Plant Collagen Builder by Garden of Life, includes: biotin, silica, antioxidants, and several vitamins and minerals. Price: $27.19
- Reserveage Vegan Plant-based Collagen Builder, includes: vitamin C, amino acids, and white tea extract. Price: $39.99
- Genius Liquid Collagen by Algenist, face cream that contains vegan collagen and microalgae. Price; $115
True vegan collagen is still a ways coming, but like the Impossible burger, we have a feeling it’s going to roll out in stores near us, faster than we think.
Ana Reisdorf has 11 years of experience as a registered dietitian. She has a passion for sharing evidence-based nutrition information on a larger scale through her writing. When she's not at her laptop, she can be found wrangling her unruly boys and loving life in Nashville, Tennessee.