Collagen is a powerful protein that is both extremely plentiful and extremely useful throughout the body. It's part of wound healing, skin elasticity, tendon and bone resilience, and much more. It's easy for the body to synthesize if you give it the right materials to do so. However, over time and as you age, your body's ability to synthesize collagen breaks down.
This has led to many people turning to collagen supplements. Collagen can be found in many forms, from bone broth to whole proteins, all the way to collagen peptides and extracts. The question is, does it matter how you take it, and if so, what option should you pursue?
Before we dig into today's discussion, here are some other resources you might want to read.
- Everything we know about collagen and skin elasticity.
- A discussion of collagen gummies versus capsules and powder.
- How to get collagen as a vegan or vegetarian.
- The difference between collagen and bone broth.
Now, with all that out of the way, what's on today's plate?
Two Types of Collagen: Marine and Bovine
First of all, it's worth mentioning that "collagen" is not a thing. Or, rather, it is, but there are at least 16 different "types" of collagen, as identified by science. Each type of collagen has a different purpose in the body, a different chemical composition, and different benefits if you were to get more of it in your diet… mostly.
Of the sixteen different types of collagen, only four are really worth talking about. These are:
- Type I. 90% of your body's collagen is Type I, which is used as a sort of scaffold for your flesh. It's the framework that your skin, muscles, tendons, cartilage, and even teeth are built upon.
- Type II. This is a less common collagen that is used primarily in the soft, elastic cartilage that cushions your joints.
- Type III. This is similar to Type I but is used primarily in arteries, muscles, and your organs.
- Type IV. This is found in the skin and is used to help filter what passes through the barrier.
When we talk about types of collagen, this is usually what we're discussing. However, there are other ways that "types" of collagen can be applied.
In this case, the two types of collagen we're discussing refer to the origin of the collagen. In this case, the two discussed are marine and bovine.
Marine collagen is collagen that comes from fish-based sources. Most typically, this collagen is made out of the bones, skin, and scales of fish, which are processed to remove everything that isn't collagen peptides (the amino acid chains that make up collagen strings). The processing is done via hydrolysis, which uses water to break down chemical bonds, as well as further processing to extract the relevant molecules.
Marine collagen is primarily composed of Type I collagen. In fact, it is very similar to human collagen in size and chemical shape. This might not seem meaningful, but it can make a difference in how readily the body can absorb the collagen and what it can be used for. Some people believe that marine collagen is easier to digest, more bioavailable, and better at achieving the benefits to the areas of the body using Type I collagen than other options.
The alternative is bovine collagen. Bovine means cow; thus, bovine collagen comes from cows. It's found in all of the areas you would expect from cattle, including hides, bones, tendons, and other areas of the body. However, since many of those are used elsewhere, the most common source of bovine collagen is the hide, or skin, of the cattle.
If your initial reaction to this is disgust, don't worry; much like marine collagen, bovine collagen is heavily processed such that nothing of the original hide remains but the protein peptides. Unlike marine collagen, bovine collagen is mostly Type I but also includes some Type III collagen.
In theory, this makes bovine collagen slightly harder for the body to absorb but more effective for organ and muscle support.
Deeper Differences Between Bovine and Marine Collagen
To dig a little deeper, let's look into more of the differences between these two types of collagen.
Marine collagen is slightly easier for the body to absorb.
In theory, marine collagen is slightly smaller in terms of the molecules comprising it and thus is slightly easier for the body to absorb. As far as we know, no real studies have been performed into the bioavailability of these two kinds of collagen, however. In fact, collagen is defined by the chemical structure of the molecules, so the source shouldn't make a lot of difference. The primary variance is that marine is primarily Type I, while bovine includes more Type III. This can account for the differences some people experience.
Bovine collagen is better for post-exercise recovery.
One reason some people use collagen supplements is to assist in recovery after a workout. When you work out, you are intentionally damaging your muscles and allowing them to heal back stronger than they were before.
Collagen plays an important role in the healing process. It's the scaffold upon which new growth in skin, muscle, and other parts of the body is formed. This holds true whether it's a cut or burn on the skin or torn muscle fibers. The more readily available the collagen is in your body, the easier you can recover from exercise.
Those of you who have tried different kinds of protein for post-workout supplements will recognize that not all sources of protein are created equal. Collagen is no exception. However, the largest difference would be between non-collagen protein powders, protein sources like chicken, or collagen supplements. The difference between marine and bovine collagen is relatively minimal in comparison.
Marine collagen is generally more sustainably harvested.
While bovine collagen can come from grass-fed beef or farmed cattle, marine collagen generally only comes from wild-caught fish. Farmed fish are on their way out, as they damage the environment and produce lower-quality seafood. Many people have come to recognize that wild-caught fish is so much better, so it has become an increasing source of all sorts of fish products, including collagen.
Bovine collagen is generally cheaper.
Bovine collagen is generally quite cheap for three reasons. First, it's a byproduct of beef production. Beef is already being produced in mass quantities around the world, and the parts that are used for collagen (the skin) are usually otherwise discarded. As a byproduct, it's often quite cheap to obtain the materials to produce it. Marine collagen, being wild-caught, requires more investment in obtaining the fish. Though this too is always going to happen, so it's more of a matter of scale. Fishing simply takes more effort for a smaller amount of return than farming cattle.
The price difference is generally pretty minimal, but it's there. If you're trying to get collagen as cheaply as possible, bovine collagen is the way to go. If you want collagen regardless of the price, many people consider marine collagen to be the better option.
Neither has overt scents.
If you're worried about marine collagen smelling "fishy" or, like fish oil, giving you "fish burps," put your fears aside. Likewise, if you're worried about bovine collagen tasting or smelling like beef, don't worry. Both forms of collagen are generally so thoroughly processed that they're nothing but pure, concentrated protein. Any of the remnants that would make those proteins carry a scent are removed.
That said, some forms of collagen do carry those scents. If you find a collagen product that smells like its origin, you might want to look for a different source. It indicates that the collagen may not have been fully processed and has contaminants other than collagen present in the supplement.
Additionally, some forms of collagen might have scents or flavors added to them. Most often, these are artificial flavors like chocolate or vanilla, meant to make the collagen tastier and easier to mix into smoothies, shakes, and other forms of food. You can buy unflavored, pure collagen powder and capsules to avoid this issue.
A Note About Allergies
One thing to mention here is that some people opt for one type of collagen over the other because of potential issues with allergies or objections to red meat.
Some people avoid marine collagen because they have allergies to shellfish. This isn't usually going to be a problem. Marine collagen is usually harvested from fish, not from shellfish, so if fish don't trigger your allergies, marine collagen also won't. Additionally, shellfish allergies are caused by a protein in shellfish called tropomyosin. Properly hydrolyzed and processed marine collagen should be nothing but collagen and thus wouldn't trigger these allergies.
That said, it's better to be safe than sorry, so you may as well opt for bovine collagen if you have a shellfish allergy.
Conversely, bovine collagen has virtually nothing of the cow itself in the collagen, just the extracted proteins. Very few people have beef allergies, and bovine collagen shouldn't trigger them. However, most people who have objections to red meat object to things like the cholesterol present in it; collagen does not have this problem.
If, however, your objection to red meat is to the treatment of animals, it's safe to say that bovine collagen isn't going to be great in that regard. Even organic, grass-fed bovine collagen is from farm-raised and slaughtered animals and is still an animal product. Then again, marine collagen is also from an animal. If you object to animal products in general, you should scroll back to the top of this article and click through to the post about vegetarian and vegan sources of collagen instead.
Which Source of Collagen is Best?
The truth is, there's very little difference between bovine and marine collagen. Both of them are processed down to their component parts, so it just matters what those component parts are and what you're after.
Bovine collagen is more well-rounded, with both Type I and Type III collagen present in the powders you find on the market. Marine is 99% or greater purity Type I collagen. If you want Type I exclusively, marine collagen is the way to go.
The question is, should you want that, or does it not really matter? In reality, it doesn't matter. 99% of the collagen you consume will be broken down further into amino acids by the body and then re-synthesized into whatever form of protein or collagen the body needs when it needs it.
Instead, consider various factors that can make collagen more effective or more pleasant.
- Flavorings. Flavorings can be artificial, but they can make collagen more pleasant to consume.
- Additives. Some forms of collagen have additional additives to add different forms of collagen, or alternative proteins, or even bulking agents or preservatives. Make sure you read the ingredients list of any collagen protein you might want to take.
- Vitamins. Vitamin C, in particular, is essential to the chemical process your body uses to synthesize collagen and use it. Getting more vitamin C along with the collagen peptides can be a good way to boost bioavailability and usage throughout the body.
- Purity and Sourcing. Different brands and sources of collagen have different levels of standards. You want to find a source of collagen you can trust. It can help to look for lab testing from a third party that verifies the quality of the collagen products you buy.
It's all up to you what you want out of your collagen products. And, while not all collagen products are created equal, the difference between bovine and marine collagen is relatively minimal. There are other factors more worth considering at the end of the day. Only concern yourself with the bovine versus marine origin for collagen if you have a strong objection to cattle or to fishing, if you're primarily concerned with specific allergies, or if you've had bad experiences with one or the other in the past.
Have you given either of the types of collagen a go? Which one did you choose? Did it have the benefits you were looking for? Be sure to leave all your thoughts and stories in the comments section down below! We'd love to hear from each and every one of you!