Collagen: desirable or dangerous?

‘Collagen’ has become a buzzword for the health-conscious community. Products containing collagen are proliferating on the market, claiming to provide health benefits such as youthful skin and resilient bones and joints. Does science back these claims? Or could this ‘magic’ ingredient be potentially life-threatening?

What is collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body. It is the ‘glue’ in your tissues, and thus essential to maintaining strength and structure. Your body produces collagen naturally, but the rate of production decreases gradually as you get older, presenting as wrinkles on the outside and weak bones or painful joints on the inside.

What supports collagen production in our bodies?

Several vitamins and minerals are known to support collagen production, as well as specific amino acids found in animal products (e.g. proline in egg whites). The most popular types of collagen supplements available include hydrolysed collagen (produced through a process using enzymes to break the long collagen fibres found in beef, poultry and fish into short fibres, for easy gut absorption) and gelatine or cooked collagen (e.g. bone broth). Dietary intake and/or supplementation are shown to enhance the amount of collagen in the body.

Are collagen benefits backed by science?

There are many claims for the benefits of collagen supplementation generally, but at this point science can only prove the benefits of hydrolysed collagen supplementation (i.e. improved skin, bone and joint health). Currently, the addition of low levels of collagen to foods has not been shown to be sufficiently beneficial to support any claims relating to health.

Health claims on products which include collagen:

The regulations relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs in South Africa (R.146/2010) do not permit any health claims on food products, and this includes implied health claims. This means that no claims relating to the health benefits of collagen are permitted on food products, including implied health claims.

Can collagen be a potential hazard?

Collagen supplements are derived from animal products; therefore, it is important to be conscious of allergens (e.g. to eggs, milk protein or fish) to prevent allergic reactions that could at worst be fatal. Also, because heavy metals and toxins can collect in animal bones, it is possible that collagen supplements could be a source of compounds such as arsenic or lead.

What collagen tests can be considered?

As we’ve said, it’s necessary to test collagen products for common allergens. Apart from that, it may also be of interest to find out from which animal species the collagen is derived. Regarding food fraud and brand integrity, it could be beneficial to ensure that a chosen collagen manufacturer is providing a pure, high-quality product, free from undesirable additives or unwanted ingredients.

Despite the current market popularity of collagen-containing products, there are a few considerations to be taken into account before you look at developing and advertising these products.

When should collagen be tested for allergens?

Undeclared allergens
If it is suspected that collagen is derived from a common allergen, or collagen supplements contain ingredients derived from common allergens, and a supplier cannot provide adequate information, allergen testing may be a useful tool.

Food fraud
If it is suspected that collagen used may be adulterated with undeclared sources of collagen, i.e. bovine adulterated with fish collagen, allergen testing may be a valuable tool to detect such adulteration.

Cross Contamination
If supplements are manufactured in facilities where common allergens are handles, it is necessary to confirm that it is not contaminated with these allergens.

Separate to the above, but also very interesting to take note of is alpha-gal allergies. The mechanism of food allergies is well defined and extensively studied. It’s no wonder that when the first patients were diagnosed with alpha-gal allergies, in 2007, it took scientists by surprise. Alpha-gal is found not only in the meat of mammals, but also in their fat, skin, dander, milk, saliva, oils, and even excrement. Ingredients derived from mammal products are used widely, and are not confined to the food industry. They often hide in over-the-counter and prescription medicines, lotions, soaps, self-care products, crayons, glue and paint. In food products (other than meat), alpha-gal is associated with ingredients such as gelatine, tallow, lard and some flavourings and additives.

For allergen testing and assistance with understanding regulatory requirements, contact us.