My wife was introduced to collagen supplements over the weekend, which rang all of my skeptical alarm bells. I’ve actually heard of this before (LYN is full of people trying to sell this kind of stuff) but I never took the time to think about them properly. Once you do however, it’s immediately obvious to me that there’s something fishy about the whole idea.
The basic concept is that collagen is the main protein that is used to construct connective tissues in animals and is hence a vital component of skin tissue. However, as the body ages, collagen production slows down and the degradation of collagen causes aging. Therefore, the idea goes, taking collagen supplements orally should replenish the body’s supply and retard the formation of wrinkles.
Except that biology doesn’t work that way. Collagen is a type of protein and your body needs to create all of its own protein for it to use. In fact, it doesn’t matter what you put into your stomach as your stomach acids will just digest it and turn it into more basic substances. This is the reason why the protein supplements that bodybuilders use to build muscle don’t contain pure protein. Instead, they contain amino acids, the basic building blocks from which all proteins, including collagen, are made.
As this New York Times article points out, it’s not as if collagen supplements don’t do anything. It’s just that the body treats them as a source of protein like any other and breaks them down into amino acids which it can then use to build proteins of its own. You might as well just eat a piece of chicken and it would work just as well but be much cheaper. If you want a megadose of collagen, you might try eating gelatin based desserts, which are almost pure collagen.
What’s sad is that this sort of misinformation is pervasive in the cosmetics and beauty foods industry. While manufacturers make all sorts of claims about the effectiveness and health benefits of their products, most people are not aware that generally such claims are not verified by independent authorities. This is unlike the situation for pharmaceutical drugs where manufacturers must be able to prove to the government that they work as claimed before being allowed to sell them.
Consumers are also either not scientifically literate enough or lack the critical thinking skills needed to evaluate the various claims made by manufacturers. In the Internet age, it is easy enough to Google for more information when you’re in doubt, but it seems that few people make it a habit. This allows companies to get away with selling products that are the modern equivalent of snake oil, but dressed up in scientific language.