Collagen, collagen peptides, bone broth, gelatin; there are a lot of different terms thrown around for what is essentially the same substance. It can be understandably confusing tracking down what is what, knowing what you want to buy, and how it can work for you. Luckily for you, we're here to explain it all!
What is Collagen? What Does It Do?
Collage is the most abundant protein found in the body. It's the primary structural protein found in the extracellular matrix, and it makes up 25-35% of the protein in your body. It's like the framework upon which the rest of your cells are built. Collagen is a hugely important part of your skin, tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissues.
Think we're kidding? Collagen is found in your corneas and blood vessels, in your gut, in your vertebral discs, in your teeth, in muscle tissue, as a primary component in cartilage and the structural component of bone, and pretty much everywhere else. It's seriously everywhere. It's the glue that holds your body together, figuratively and literally.
Naturally in your body, collagen holds you together. It keeps your bones strong, it holds your skeleton together with connective ligaments, and it lubricates joints with cartilage. It gives structure to your cells and gives bounce to your skin. When you get a cut or a scrape or break a bone, collagen is there to help knit it back together and form the scaffold upon which other proteins and bits of tissue can heal. Collagen weaves have been used in bone grafts and surgical tissue transplants, and collage is used in cosmetic surgery all the time.
Why Do You Need Collagen Supplements?
So if collagen is so abundant in your body, why would you need to get more of it? What good would a supplement do?
So here's the thing. Your body naturally produces collagen, but like every system in the body, it breaks down as you get older. The older you get, the less collagen you produce. That's why when you're a kid, you can get a scraped knee and feel like it's healed up the next day, but a scrape lingers for days or weeks as an adult. Age 30 is the general turning point where your body produces less collagen than it needs on an ongoing basis.
Taking collagen supplements, then, helps your body have more collagen available to use. This can be used for wound healing, but the most common reason people want to take collagen supplements is for beauty purposes.
See, a huge part of what gives your skin its taut and youthful bounce is collagen. As you age, and the collagen in your skin breaks down without being replaced, you start to form wrinkles. Millions of people struggle with self-image issues and desperately try anything to fight against those wrinkles, and one of the more natural options is to take a collagen supplement. The idea is to get more collagen to help repair your skin and keep it looking youthful for longer.
What Are Collagen Peptides?
Now let's talk about two of the most common ways you might see as a method to get more collagen in your diet. The first is collagen peptides. Don't be scared of the word peptides here; a "peptide" is just a name for a molecule made up of amino acids. Collagen itself is a series of individual peptides, bound together in a chain.
Collagen peptides are a refined kind of collagen that breaks down the whole collagen into its bioavailable amino acid peptides. They're great for a supplement for three reasons:
- Peptides are smaller than the whole molecule and thus are great to grind down into a powder, which can be packaged in jars, in capsules, or in other forms.
- Peptides are nicely cold-water soluble, meaning they don't clump up and bind together in cold water. Many other supplements, and things like pure gelatin, solidify in cold water and need to be dissolved in hot water first.
- Peptides are already broken down and thus are very readily absorbed by the body, more so than whole molecules. That's not to say these can't be readily used by the body – they can – but peptides are easier for your body to absorb.
All of this serves to say that collagen peptides are the most refined version of the collagen protein, readily available to be absorbed and used by the body.
What is Bone Broth?
Collagen is an animal protein. There is no way to produce or take collagen without harvesting it from an animal first. Sorry, vegetarians; it's not a plant ingredient. There is some preliminary experimentation looking to develop a genetically engineered non-animal collagen, but you won't find it on the market; it doesn't yet really exist.
In the old days, before we could use the Power of Science to extract and break down collagen, you would harvest it by boiling animal parts. Do you know the old tale of boiling down a horse to make glue? That's what it is; boiling a horse's hooves, skin, hair, and bones, and skimming off the collagen, which becomes sticky as it dries and is useful as glue.
Bone broth is the same idea; you boil animal parts to release the collagen from the non-collagen materials and then consume the broth.
No, no, don't go away yet. It might sound a little gross, but human-consumption collagen doesn't really involve the hooves and hair of horses. You can get collagen from a variety of different animal sources, including fish, but the most common by far is bovine.
As the name "bone broth" implies, when you make bone broth, you're boiling down the bones of an animal. In mass-produced bone broth, this is usually beef, but when you do it at home you can do it with beef bones, poultry bones, or other animal carcasses. It's similar to making beef stock, but a stock usually involves more vegetables and meat, and fewer bones.
Making bone broth at home is a simple and rewarding process, and the end result is a rich, hearty broth that you can drink as a beverage or use as the basis for soups and sauces.
Other Ways to Take Collagen
There are a few other ways you can find collagen, but since the main focus of this post is on the difference between collagen supplements and bone broth, we're just going to cover them in passing.
A primarily alternative method of taking collagen you might come across is in the form of gelatin. Gelatin is simply a cooked form of collagen and can be found in powder or in sheet form. Hydrolyzed collagen is another term for gelatin, and gelatin is just another way of saying collagen.
The main difference between collagen and gelatin is water solubility. Collagen peptides are cold-water soluble, but gelatin solidifies in cold water. That's why, when you're making a Jell-o dessert, you dissolve the gelatin in hot water, mix in your fruit or flavorings or whatever, and let it chill to harden.
Note that this doesn't mean you can just eat a bunch of Jell-o and call it healthy. Jell-o is a gelatin product, but it's not just gelatin, it's usually packed full of sugar as well, which destroys the benefits of the collagen.
What's the Best Way to Take Collagen?
There are a lot of different ways you can take collagen, though we're mostly just talking about the main two of the peptides supplement and the bone broth. We also should cover three others, so here we go.
First up is the lotion or topical treatment. Some cosmetics companies put collagen in their skin creams and lotions, promising that the collagen can be used by your skin to repair itself. This, unfortunately, doesn't work at all. Collagen is a huge molecule that cannot penetrate the skin on its own. If you could just absorb the collagen through the skin, you could absorb all manner of other molecules, and your skin wouldn't serve as a very good environmental barrier at all. It's just not how bodies are put together. Sorry, but this one is nonsense.
The second method is with collagen injection. Cosmetic beauty treatments sometimes use subcutaneous injections of collagen to deliver the collagen directly to the skin. This works as a filler, but it's used more to add volume than to restore the collagen in your skin. Your body isn't really using that collagen, it's just there, filling out wrinkles and sunken scars and other bits of flesh. It works and can be satisfying for beauty-seekers, but it's not really bioavailable.
The third method is to drink bone broth. Bone broth is packed full of collagen, but unlike the collagen peptides, it's not broken down. That's not to say it's bad; your body does a very good job of breaking down the things you consume into component parts that it can then use in other parts of the body. We call it digestion, and it's generally very effective.
Bone broth isn't as packed with collagen as pure collagen, of course. A large amount of it is simply water. Water is good for your body, though, so it's not a bad thing to drink more of it in the form of a bone broth. Bone broth is also full of other nutrients, the minerals and vitamins extracted from the bones and other ingredients in the broth. Getting those trace nutrients and minerals can be very good for your body, and generally makes bone broth a healthy choice.
Now, there's one downside to bone broth, and that's that it's a broth. All those additional ingredients? They add calories. On top of that, if you use the bone broth to make a soup or a sauce, all the other stuff you add to it also adds calories. You turn what can be a low-calorie supplement into a snack or a meal, and that can be pretty unhealthy depending on what you add. You still get some collagen, but it's not necessarily good for you if you're damaging your body more than the collagen helps.
The fourth option you have is to take a collagen supplement. You can find this in powder or capsule form, but it's the same thing inside; collagen peptide powder. This is collagen that has been broken down into component parts, and while those parts are still further broken down by your body into the basic amino acids it can use, it's easier for the body to do than with "whole" collagen.
Taking a supplement has the benefit of being simple and easy to do. You can swallow a capsule any time of day without disrupting your appetite or needing to drink a cup of broth. On the other hand, if you want to use the powder, you may be adding it to beverages or smoothies, which has the same problem that bone broth has; you undo the benefits by eating a bunch of sugar and other stuff with it.
Collagen peptides also lack the trace minerals and other supplemental ingredients in bone broth. You can still get those minerals and stuff from, say, a multivitamin, but that means taking a secondary supplement to your supplement, and before too long you end up taking more pills than food.
Eating Raw Materials
You may have noticed that we only covered four options above when we said we'd talk about five. Well, here's the fifth; eating the raw materials necessary to synthesize collagen in your body.
Here's the thing; when you eat collagen, whether in broth or peptide form, your body breaks it down into tiny bits and uses those as it sees fit. Some of it will be re-formed as collagen in different parts of the body, but some of it will be used in other ways.
So why not split the difference? Eating the raw materials that go into making collagen can be just as effective as eating collagen because they're both broken down into component parts and used later. It's pretty easy to do; just eat things like eggs, fruits, oars, peppers, greens, and other healthy foods.
The key ingredient here is actually vitamin C. Without vitamin C, your body can't synthesize collagen. Make sure you're getting enough C, and you'll make sure you're maximizing your collagen production, no matter how you take it.