Collagen is the main component of connective tissue, making up 25% to 35% of whole-body protein content in mammals. Mostly found in fibrous tissues such as skin, collagen has gained particular commercial interest for its supposedly ‘rejuvenating’ properties. Purportedly, by hydrolysing collagen into small peptides that are then incorporated into food and drinks, the collagen can then be absorbed into cells to boost collagen production. In doing so, consumers can experience the anti-ageing effects of the protein pas the point of their body’s natural declining production. With interest in wellness products and functional foods on the rise, it is perhaps no surprise that collagen is an in-demand ingredient.

The challenge that the ingredient now faces however is similar to that which has placed a stumbling block before probiotics and other health-focused ingredients: can collagen, at least as a food ingredient, live up to the health claims? The market is quickly booming and consumers are rushing to buy into the food trend, but there has been some question as to the actual efficacy of collagen when included within or used as a food product. Consumer desire is readily apparent, but can the industry now back it up?

Collagen market sees strong growth as functional ingredients continue to trend

According to Market Insights Reports’ Global Marine Collagen Market Insights, Forecast To 2025, the market for marine collagen will grow from an estimated 2018 value of $620.3m to $897.5m by 2025 with a CAGR of 7.7%. Meanwhile, Grand View Research estimates the global collagen market as a whole will be worth $6.63bn by 2025 with a CAGR of 6.5%. There are a broad variety of uses driving that growth, but the increasing adoption of food product using collagen as a functional ingredient cannot be discounted. As wellness products continue to gain popularity, the food-oriented collagen market is only likely to rise with the tide.

In October of last year, we profiled Kween granola butter, a high-protein, gluten-free, non-GMO, nut-free spread that also contains collagen peptides. The product is the first peanut butter-like spread to be fortified with collagen peptides, catering to a bevy of health interests that are likely to draw consumer interest. The spread shows how brands are looking to capitalise on the broad appeal of ingredients such as collagen and a general pull towards products promising health functionality. Kween may be a first in its category, but if the trend continues apace it is likely to be far from the last such offering.

Tom Vierhile, innovation insights director for GlobalData, says: “Collagen peptides are beginning to trend as a functional ingredient. According to Google Trends, searches on the term ‘collagen peptides’ are up more than fourfold since 1 January 2017. Collagen tends to be much more familiar on product labels in the Asia-Pacific region than in the US, and this could be a challenge for Kween granola butter. GlobalData’s 2017 Q1 global consumer survey reveals that 55% of consumers in the Asia-Pacific region believe that collagen has a positive impact on health, while just 38% of Americans feel this is the case.”

Low risk of harm, but evidence is lacking to either prove or disprove collagen’s benefits

Perhaps the principal challenge to collagen supplements’ continued success is whether or not they can back up their rejuvenating claims. While claims of harm seem unlikely, it would not be outside the realm of possibility for the manufacturers of collagen-enhanced food products to face reputational damage if found to have been exaggerating the functional efficacy of that enhancement. Perhaps of even greater concern: if further research finds such collagen enhancements to be less effective than claimed, brands could face regulatory castigation.

The risk at present comes from there being a fairly small number of studies on the effectiveness of collagen supplements and the inclusion of collagen in food, with several of the studies sponsored by the companies that have a financial interest in it being proved that their products work as claimed. There is some evidence that such products could cause negative side effects, but again the sample size of evidence is fairly small. Producers should not necessarily be steering clear of collagen-enhancement, as the risk of harm seems low, but it is worth both brands and consumers being aware of the potential for the trend to quickly fall through with further research.

Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in the Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, told Salon: “Some think that these [collagen] peptides serve as messengers throughout the body to stimulate production of new collagen. Essentially, they fool the body into thinking that natural collagen has been broken down and as a result make more. The true effectiveness is unclear, however there is little downside to using these supplements.”

A new shape for collagen: Geltor’s animal-free gelatine

There may be one use for collagen in food that doesn’t rely on any claims of skin rejuvenation or other health benefits that may face questions of medical efficacy, yet still fits into the broader trend of more conscious eating. It is now largely recognised that, for ecological reasons if nothing else, we need to decrease our reliance on animals as a primary source of food. And as vegetarian, vegan and flexitarian diets rise as a result, manufacturers are increasingly looking to create animal-free versions of otherwise typical products. One such product presenting a challenge that collagen could be the answer to: gelatine.

According to Grand View Research, the global gelatine market will have reached a value of $4.08bn by 2024. Made from animal-produced collagen (primarily derived from pigs), gelatine is found across a variety of products but you probably know it best from sweets like Haribo. The ingredient could be set for a dramatic shake-up however, with the arrival of Geltor, a start-up producing lab-grown gelatine. Geltor uses microbial fermentation to turn carbon, nitrogen and oxygen into collagen, which they are currently focused on utilising in cosmetic products.

Given time however, Geltor’s animal-free gelatine could be set to find its way into a bevy of food products. Although it may not present the same threat to the meat industry as animal-free alternatives such as the Impossible Burger, the wide range of applications for gelatine presents a massive market opportunity for lab-grown varieties (particularly as it opens up the sector to consumer groups who can’t eat gelatine in its current form). Doubtless there will be regulatory hurdles to cross but Geltor has one clear advantage at least: this isn’t a collagen alternative, it is collagen.

As co-founder Alex Lorestani told CNBC, “It’s nature-identical. It’s just a pure protein, identical to the one you would find wherever. We just make it a different way.”