Maintaining momentum in the collagen market: what can we learn from the mighty omega-3?

Published: 25-Mar-2024

Do you remember a time before omega-3s dominated the supplements sector? Us neither. For many consumers, omega-3 intake has become part of their daily regimens. But despite its popularity, omega-3 had more humble beginnings not so long ago — and today’s collagen market bears some striking similarities

Gathering intense momentum, the growth of collagen is powered by the ingredient’s far-reaching health benefits and significant innovation potential. But it’s a market that’s also shrouded in speculation and misconceptions — not too unlike its omega-3 counterpart once was (and still is to some degree).

This raises the question: is collagen following the footsteps of the mighty omega-3? And, if so, what can players in the collagen sphere learn from the highs and the lows of the established omega-3 category?

In this article, Daniel Martínez-Puig, Head of R&D, Human and Animal Health at Bioiberica, examines how brands and innovators can keep pace in the rapidly evolving collagen market and what insights, learnings and lessons they can take from the success of the omega-3 landscape. 

Differentiation of collagen types 

When it comes to choosing omega-3 ingredients, manufacturers must consider which ratio of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) they want to use; this can impact the health benefit(s) of the end product.

In the same way, supplement brands looking to innovate in the collagen market need to understand that not all collagen ingredients are the same. For example, choosing a native versus hydrolysed collagen can affect how the end product contributes to health and other aspects of its profile, such as dosage. 

A defining characteristic of the collagen protein is its three-dimensional triple helix structure consisting of three polypeptide chains.

Yet “collagen” is being used as a broad term to describe ingredients with completely different formations, thereby muddying the waters.

Simply put, collagen in its native, triple helix form is a complete protein, whereas hydrolysed collagens contain a mixture of amino acids and peptides that are made by breaking down animal collagen by enzymatic hydrolysis.

So, not all collagen is the same and it shouldn’t be portrayed as such. Nonetheless, this distinction isn’t always apparent to consumers when they see “collagen” on product labels. This prompts the question: “Should the industry be more explicit and differentiate collagen molecules into native and hydrolysed forms?” 

The term “vegan” collagen is adding further confusion — for consumers and experts alike — about what collagen really is. But the truth is that collagen is fundamentally animal-based. Therefore, is it right for brands to claim that plant-based options are collagen supplements?

Clarity on health benefits 

Unlike EPA and DHA, which have distinct and overlapping mechanisms of action, the way native and hydrolysed collagens work is completely different. But this fact is not widely recognised.

Native collagen products act very differently in the body compared with peptide-based solutions, despite being developed to deliver the same or similar health benefits. Collagen-based joint health supplements are a good example of this. 

Native (undenatured) type II collagen and hydrolysed (denatured) collagen peptides both demonstrate efficacy in joint health — but they support joints in diverse ways.

When taken orally, for example, native type II collagen is beneficial for joints specifically, whereas hydrolysed collagen can play a role in joints, skin, bone and tissue health (not joint health alone).

The reason that native type II is so specific is derived from its targeted immune-mediated mechanism of action at the cartilage level; this is called oral tolerance, which suppresses the body’s immune response against endogenous collagen.

Through this action, it targets the joints alone, supporting long-term joint health. What’s more, its benefit is achieved at only 40 mg/day, making the supplement easy to consume as part of one’s everyday diet.

Maintaining momentum in the collagen market: what can we learn from the mighty omega-3?

Conversely, hydrolysed collagen supports joint health through different mechanisms (and via multiple pathways) entirely, including promoting the synthesis of endogenous collagen.

However, it’s important to remember that hydrolysed collagen is not specific for joint health, as it reaches other parts of the body when supplemented too (such as skin and bones). 

The opportunity? There is a need to educate key market stakeholders, including medical professionals and consumers, about the unique health benefits of different collagen molecules — especially native and hydrolysed forms.

This could include the distribution of informative content or clearer messaging on packaging labels. 

Robust science is a priority 

The science behind omega-3s has been evolving for many years; now, it’s supported by a robust bank of scientific evidence. Ultimately, this has led to groundbreaking innovation in the omega-3 space.

The research behind the ingredient was not without its disputes in the scientific community, however, and whereas some benefits of omega-3s — such as cardiovascular health support — have strong scientific support, other areas of research have been less definitive.

Like omega-3 research in its earlier days, the efficacy and potential benefits of collagen supplements are a focus of debate too, mostly because of variations in study design, sample size and control groups.

This has yielded inconsistent or contradictory findings. Thus, although the basic mechanisms of collagen’s numerous functions are well-understood, high-quality and well-controlled scientific research is needed to propel our understanding of the ingredient’s role in human health. 

The key takeaway for brands and innovators in the space? To truly unlock the untapped innovation potential of collagen ingredients and support product claims, a commitment to science is fundamental.

Moreover, clinical substantiation appeals to today’s health-conscious consumers who are increasingly demanding products that are validated through rigorous scientific research.

Maintaining momentum in the collagen market: what can we learn from the mighty omega-3?

Why? Because they are perceived as more credible, trustworthy and effective. Don’t forget though. If brands really want to be noticed by consumers, it’s important to communicate research effectively in a clear and simple manner.

Better standards and recommendations for intake 

Like any other segment, standards play a crucial role in terms of ensuring the quality, safety and integrity of products. By adhering to established benchmarks, manufacturers can build trust and contribute to the growth and sustainability of their respective industries.

In turn, consumers benefit from products that are reliable and help them to achieve their health goals. But not all collagen products are created equal. For this reason, it’s important for nutrition brands to choose collagen ingredients from a reputable partner that adheres to established standards and regulations. 

The Collagen Stewardship Alliance (CSA) is taking steps to support this. Taking inspiration from organisations such as GOED (the global organisation for EPA and DHA omega-3s) in the omega-3 market, The CSA is currently developing a platform to verify collagen and establish a new standard in the market.

The certification will assess the manufacture of collagen, including the source of the ingredient, the clinical research supporting its efficacy and effective dosage, as well as factors including sustainability. This will enable the producer — and subsequent finished product or brand — to become collagen verified. 

But unlike the omega-3 market, there are still no guidelines for omega-3 intake from bodies, such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or clear health claims. This is expected to come with advancements in the scientific evidence behind the ingredient.

Creating formats that appeal 

This is an area in which omega-3s and collagen are less alike. Omega-3s are notoriously difficult to formulate in novel product formats owing to their fishy odour and aftertaste. However, collagen solutions are available in multiple delivery forms, including powders, capsules and topical creams.

Further still, collagen ingredients — such as native type II collagen — have paved the way for the formulation of novel formats with high consumer appeal, such as gummies and functional foods.  

Despite this, collagen innovation has some perceived limitations too. Plant-based omega-3 options are readily available. The same cannot be said for collagen, with ingredients obtained from multiple animal sources and tissues.

Although recombinant collagens (that is a substance created by genetic engineering techniques) may be a future option in the fields of regenerative medicine and tissue engineering, their potential application as food ingredients remains unclear at present.

The key takeaway

Although there is a lot to learn from the omega-3 market, collagen is forging its own path in many ways. Current innovation is focused on so many different applications — including dietary supplements, foods, beverages and cosmetics, and health areas such as joint health, beauty and healthy ageing.

This makes it a highly complex market to navigate and one that’s difficult to predict. The innovation potential, however, is significant, making it an extremely exciting space to be in. 

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