Reviewed and edited by Stephanie Wells, MS, RD, LD, ACSM-CPT
In recent years, collagen supplements have boomed in popularity. There’s lots of buzz around this “magical beauty pill,” and how it may ease the aging process and diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
However, there is some uncertainty around the contents of collagen supplements, the difference between types and brands, and their effectiveness. If these are some questions you need help answering, you have come to the right place.
In this article, I’ll discuss the difference between plant collagen vs. animal collagen, the role of collagen in the body, and whether or not collagen supplements are helpful for vegans.
What is collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant structural protein in the body. Its fiber-like structure provides strength, rigidity, and resistance to stretching. As a major component of connective tissue, collagen plays an essential role in the support and function of skin, bones, teeth, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments.
Collagen synthesis1 occurs mainly in the deeper layers of the skin.
To produce collagen, your body needs amino acids such as proline, glycine, and hydroxyproline. Other vitamins and minerals necessary for collagen production to occur include vitamin C, zinc, copper, and silicon, all of which can be obtained through the diet.
As we age, the collagen fibers in our skin become damaged and weak, thus resulting in fine lines and wrinkles. Recent studies2 have shown that having more collagen in the body is associated with improved bone strength, hair thickness, nail growth, and skin elasticity and hydration. Collagen has also been used to effectively relieve bone and joint pain related to osteoarthritis.
Animal collagen supplements
The main sources of collagen in supplements are cowhide, bone, pork rind, fish skin, and fish bones.
The process to obtain collagen3 protein from raw animal materials involves pretreatment, collagen extraction, and further purification.
Pretreatment involves immersing the animal materials in a diluted acid solution to help break down the collagen protein into smaller collagen peptides. These are more easily extracted and are better absorbed by the digestive system than whole collagen. After the collagen is extracted, it is dehydrated and made into a powder to form a supplement.
Aging slows collagen synthesis and decreases the number of blood vessels supplying nutrients to the skin. These changes cause the collagen scaffold within the skin to lose its strength and stability. The decline in skin quality with age is characterized by sagginess, wrinkles, thinness, and dryness.
To prevent the unwanted effects of aging, collagen supplements have become increasingly popular among adults. A 2019 systematic review4 suggested that oral supplementation of animal-based collagen peptides can positively impact various skin conditions and aging.
Collagen supplements effectively increase the amount of collagen produced in the body. Additionally, the density and diameter of existing collagen fibrils, which are the individual units that connect together to form collagen molecules, are enlarged. Denser and stronger collagen fibrils contribute to enhanced skin, bone, and joint health.
However, considering animal products are naturally rich in collagen, it may not be necessary for those who eat an omnivorous diet to take animal-based collagen supplements.
Vegan collagen supplements
Since collagen comes from animal sources only, standard animal-based collagen supplements would be out of the question for vegans or vegetarians. However, thanks to emerging technology and advanced scientific research, vegan collagen supplements are now being produced from P. Pastoris5, a type of yeast.
Yeast can be genetically manipulated to produce recombinant human collagen6. In this process, the genetic code of P. Pastoris is altered so that collagen molecules can be produced from the yeast. The so-called ‘vegan collagen’ possesses the same physical structure and composition as animal-derived collagen.
According to a 2014 study7 published in Bioengineered, plant-derived collagen is equally as safe and effective as animal-derived collagen for cosmetic procedures and oral supplementation.
It is also important to know the difference between vegan collagen and vegan “collagen boosters.” Vegan collagen “boosters” or “builders” are often marketed as plant-based collagen supplements. However, vegan collagen is not yet commercially available, so the products you see in stores are actually collagen boosters.
Collagen boosters do not contain actual collagen, but rather the various vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that boost the synthesis of collagen in the body.
The collagen precursors present in the boosters can easily be obtained through the consumption of plant-based foods, therefore eliminating the need to take any supplements. Obtaining the nutrients from a natural diet is likely more affordable and is beneficial to overall health.
There are several known benefits to plant-derived collagen over animal-derived collagen. For those who have a hypersensitivity to either collagen or animal products, plant-derived collagen reduces the risk of having an adverse immune response. Plant-derived collagen is free of foreign animal tissue contaminants and poses no risk for transmission of infectious diseases from mammals.
Product consistency is another key advantage, as plant-derived collagen has been proven to show less variation in purity, quality, and performance predictability. Not to mention the production process, which is more cost-efficient and uses far less raw material than what is required to produce animal-derived collagen.
How vegans can produce enough collagen
Those who adhere to a vegan or vegetarian diet can stimulate natural collagen production by consuming foods that are rich in collagen precursors.
Plant-based foods that support endogenous collagen production include:
- Vitamin C-rich foods: citrus fruits, bell peppers, tomatoes, kale, strawberries
- Zinc-rich foods: pumpkin seeds, green peas, chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans
- Copper-rich foods: sesame seeds, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, shiitake mushrooms
- Silicon-rich foods: cherries, apples, eggplant, figs, cucumber
- Proline-rich foods: yogurt, cabbage, asparagus, seaweed, mushrooms
- Glycine-rich foods: tofu, sweet potatoes, seaweed, watercress, legumes
- Hydroxyproline-rich foods: alfalfa sprouts, carob seeds
Vegan collagen supplements are not likely to be advantageous for vegans who already consume a well-balanced diet.
RELATED: The 17 Best Vegan Sources of Lysine
There are two different types of vegan collagen products: yeast-derived collagen and collagen boosters.
Plant-derived or vegan collagen is the product of genetically modified yeast. It’s designed to mimic the structure and function of animal-derived collagen. Collagen boosters are not actually collagen, but rather supplements that provide the nutrients your body needs to activate collagen production.
It is important to keep in mind that any collagen product you find on the market that claims to be “plant-based collagen” is actually a collagen booster since yeast-derived collagen is not commercially available yet.
As a reminder, collagen can naturally be sourced only from the connective tissue, bone, and skin of animals.
With that being said, yeast-derived collagen supplements are proven to be just as safe and effective as animal-derived collagen.
However, for a vegan who is already consuming a natural, whole-food diet, collagen supplements or boosters may be unnecessary and a waste of money.
All of the nutrients provided in vegan collagen “boosters” can easily be obtained through a vegan diet. By eating plant-based foods high in vitamin C, zinc, copper, silicon, proline, glycine, and hydroxyproline, you can promote the synthesis of collagen in your own body.
Vegan collagen vs animal collagen – FAQs
Is plant collagen the same as animal collagen?
The structure and function of plant collagen is the same as animal collagen. However, animal collagen is sourced from the connective tissue, skin, and bones of animals. Plant collagen is
made from genetically engineered organisms, such as yeast.
What is the best source of plant-based collagen?
Researchers have found that P. Pastoris, a type of yeast, is one of the most effective and commonly used for genetically engineering plant-based collagen. However, yeast-derived collagen products are not commercially available yet.
Why is vegan collagen better?
Collagen that is extracted from the tissues and bones of animals requires a lot of raw materials, which is costly, and poses a risk for transmission of pathogens from the animals.
Is marine collagen vegan?
Marine collagen is an animal-based product. Since marine collagen is sourced from the skin of fish, it is not considered vegan.
Is bovine collagen vegan?
Bovine collagen is made from the skin, bones, and muscles of bovine species, such as cows, yak, water buffalo, and bison. Therefore, bovine collagen is not vegan.
The scientific information in this article was accurate at the time of publishing but may change over time as new research becomes available.
- Wu M, Cronin K, Crane JS. Biochemistry, Collagen Synthesis. [Updated 2022 Sep 12]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507709/
- Al-Atif H. Collagen Supplements for Aging and Wrinkles: A Paradigm Shift in the Fields of Dermatology and Cosmetics. Dermatol Pract Concept. 2022;12(1):e2022018. Published 2022 Jan 1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8824545/
- Matinong AME, Chisti Y, Pickering KL, Haverkamp RG. Collagen Extraction from Animal Skin. Biology (Basel). 2022;11(6):905. Published 2022 Jun 13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9219788/
- Choi FD, Sung CT, Juhasz ML, Mesinkovsk NA. Oral Collagen Supplementation: A Systematic Review of Dermatological Applications. J Drugs Dermatol. 2019;18(1):9-16. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30681787/
- Xiang, ZX., Gong, JS., Shi, JH. et al. High-efficiency secretory expression and characterization of the recombinant type III human-like collagen in Pichia pastoris. Bioresour. Bioprocess. 9, 117 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40643-022-00605-4
- Báez, J., Olsen, D. & Polarek, J.W. Recombinant microbial systems for the production of human collagen and gelatin. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol 69, 245–252 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00253-005-0180-x
- Shoseyov O, Posen Y, Grynspan F. Human collagen produced in plants: more than just another molecule. Bioengineered. 2014;5(1):49-52. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4008466/