Collagen supplements have become a trend in the past few years making the collagen industry a billion-dollar market. But did you know that many traditional foods and diets are naturally rich in collagen? Are you confused about the difference between collagen and gelatin? Do you want to know all the health benefits you can gain by consuming collagen and gelatin and how you can eat more as part of your diet? Let’s dive in!
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Collagen vs gelatin
Let’s start at the beginning. What is the difference between collagen and gelatin?
Collagen is the protein that makes up all animals’ (including ours) connective tissues, such as skin, tendons, bones, and cartilage. It’s the most abundant protein in our body and it’s naturally synthesized. Collagen synthesis, however, naturally slows down as we age. Guess what, that’s why we get wrinkles and more joint pain as we get older! For this reason, increasing collagen consumption is a natural way to slow the ageing process.
Gelatin is a form of partially hydrolyzed collagen, which means that the collagen’s proteins are broken down into smaller parts (amino acids and peptides). This occurs, for example, when collagen is heated. So, when you make bone broth by simmering the collagen contained in animal bones, you’re converting it into gelatin. This is why bone broth is gelatinous upon cooling. Gelatin is a common ingredient in many products, such as candies, sauces, soups, and even cosmetics and medications.
The main difference between collagen and gelatin is their chemical form and behaviour. Gelatin will gel when it’s heated and then cooled, while collagen will not. Other than that, collagen and gelatin have a very similar amino acid profile and similar health benefits. This means that you can use collagen and gelatin interchangeably in many recipes unless you need a recipe to gel (use gelatin), or you don’t want a recipe to gel (use collagen).
All the health benefits of collagen and gelatin
Collagen for your own collagen
Because collagen is the most abundant protein in our body, having enough is vital! When our bodies become deficient in collagen, our health and appearance are affected. Collagen production naturally slows down around the mid-20s and keeps getting lower as we age. Factors such as certain autoimmune conditions, improper nutrition (such as lack of Vit C, excess sugar consumption), and unhealthy lifestyle (such as lack of sleep and exercise) can all contribute to slowing down collagen synthesis.
When our body becomes deficient in collagen, our skin gets more wrinkly and our hair thinner, our joints and muscles get sore and stiff, and even our blood pressure can become abnormal. Yes, that’s right, blood vessel walls are made of collagen, too! Do you know what else is made of collagen? Your digestive tract lining. That’s why collagen is also very important for maintaining a healthy gut and preventing (or healing) problems such as intestinal permeability and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Because collagen also forms the soft framework of our bones, consuming collagen can help sustain bone health and prevent osteoporosis.
Because collagen promotes skin and joint elasticity, it’s vital during pregnancy, when a woman’s skin and joints are stretched to the max. Consuming more collagen during pregnancy can help prevent stretch marks and achy joints. Importantly, collagen also sustains proper baby’s development and can help mom recover faster after delivery. Finally, growing children also benefit from consuming a collagen-rich diet, which can help sustain proper bone and muscle growth, and promote gut health.
Collagen and amino acids: the importance of glycine
As we have seen, restocking your own body collagen is vital to support your health, but the benefits of consuming collagen go way beyond that!
Collagen has a unique amino acid profile compared to other proteins, with high content of proline and glycine. Glycine is not considered an essential amino acid, meaning that our body can synthesize it by converting an other amino acid, serine. However, glycine production in our body is not enough to cover our daily requirements, which is why we need to consume glycine through our diet to meet our body’s needs. This is even more important for people with certain conditions that slow down glycine production, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
But why is glycine so important? Glycine is required by our bodies to grow and maintain tissues and synthesizing hormones and enzymes. The health benefits of increasing glycine consumption include:
- Antioxidant properties: glycine is required by our bodies to make glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that protects our cells from oxidative damage, which is cause of many diseases
- Strong muscle: glycine can help prevent muscle loss and preserve muscle mass; glycine is also required by our bodies to make creatine, which provides energy to our muscles
- Better sleep: glycine has a calming effect on the brain and can help lower core body temperature, resulting in improved sleep quality
- Better mood: glycine helps regulate dopamine levels, contributing to making us feel good and happy
- Detoxification properties: glycine takes part in the body’s detoxification process and can help detoxify from certain toxic chemicals we might be exposed to
- Protection against heart disease and diabetes: glycine has been found to reduce several risk factors of heart disease and type 2 diabetes
The other side is that our body needs a certain amino acid balance. For example, muscle meat is high in the amino acid methionine, which can have negative effects on our health when in excess. However, when methionine intake is balanced by glycine intake, the potential negative effects on our health vanish. This means that consuming high amounts of muscle meat without consuming enough collagen can be bad for us. To be clear, I’m not suggesting to cut down your meat intake, I’m suggesting to boost your collagen consumption! Keep reading for some ideas on how to include collagen in your diet.
How to eat more collagen and gelatin as part of your diet
Collagen and gelatin powder
Collagen supplements have appeared everywhere in the last few years, promising a miraculous effect on your skin, hair, nails, and joints. There are many kinds of collagen available out there. Type 1, 2, or 3, hydrolyzed, marine, grass-fed, and the list goes on. One thing that is certainly miraculous about these supplements is your wallet as collagen supplements can be quite pricy!
I personally like having a jar of grass-fed collagen on hand in my pantry, to add to baking goods or take as a supplement once in a while. Because of its price, though, I tend to use collagen powder sparsely.
A good quality gelatin powder can also get quite pricy, but I like using gelatin powder in some recipes. We love homemade gelatin or jellos, and I also like adding gelatin to my homemade yogurt, jams and to some baking goods to improve texture. Try my delicious and easy natural strawberry gelatin or my pear and ginger gelatin!
When choosing good-quality collagen or gelatin powder these are the things to consider:
- Source (grass-fed vs conventional)
- Origin (country)
- Practices (how are the animals raised)
- Ingredient list
As a rule of thumb, I’d advise choosing collagen or gelatin powder from grass-fed, pasture-raised animals (beef is my favourite). I also make sure that there are no other ingredients added to the collagen or gelatin. My favourite choices are Vital Proteins Collagen, Vital Proteins Gelatin, Great Lakes Gelatin, Organika Enhanced Collagen, Protein Essentials Gelatin.
So, if I don’t take supplements regularly, how do I make sure to incorporate enough collagen into my diet? Mostly in these natural and budget-friendly ways!
Natural and budget-friendly ideas to eat more collagen and gelatin
Consume gelatin-rich foods
Traditionally, people used to eat animals nose-to-tail, which means that they cooked and ate all the parts, including the skin, tendons, and other gelatinous parts. This practice granted our ancestors a naturally collagen-rich diet. Nowadays, gelatin-rich cuts of meat are typically discarded or undervalued, and most people only consume muscle meat, which lacks many nutrients, including collagen.
I highly recommend everyone to re-evaluate collagen-rich cuts of meat. Certainly, tendons and skin might be tough and maybe not that appealing, but if cooked properly they are truly delicious. The collagen in the meat, after being cooked, turns into gelatin and gives the meat a special juiciness and tenderness, besides making delicious sauces and gravies. Slow cooking is the best way for collagen-rich cuts of meat.
As a matter of fact, some of my favourite meat dishes are made from these undervalued cuts! Another great advantage? These cuts are usually cheaper. Moreover, if you, like me, like to buy local meat in bulk, these cuts will be part of your deal. So you better eat them (and enjoy them)!
How to choose cuts of meat that are rich in gelatin? As a general rule, marbled meat contains more collagen than pure muscle one. Cuts that include bones and ligaments are also rich in collagen. Finally, organ meat is usually richer in collagen (and so many more nutrients) than most muscle meat. Some examples of gelatin-rich cuts of meat include:
- Organs (heart, kidneys, tripe)
- Chicken wings
Other collagen-rich foods you might want to try include:
- Eggs (including fish eggs)
- Shellfish (scallops, oysters)
- Gelatinous fish parts (skin, tongues, cheeks)
- Small fish that you can consume whole (sardines)
Make bone broth
Other animal parts that are extremely rich in collagen are bones. Even though you can’t eat bones (well, you actually could), you can extract the collagen and all the other nutrients by making bone broth! Bone broth is a traditional food that has so many health benefits.
Another great advantage of making your own bone broth is that you can make it with parts you would normally throw away, so it’s basically free! So the next time you roast a whole chicken or cook a cut of meat on the bone, save the bones for your batch of broth. I like to save all the bones we consume in a bag that I store in the freezer so that I can make bone broth once I have accumulated enough bones. Find my Instant Pot bone broth recipe here.
You can add other collagen-rich parts to your bone broth to make it extra gelatinous. A great option is chicken feet. They are very inexpensive and make the best broth! You can also use skin and other gelatinous parts that are not edible. If your broth gets too fatty, let it sit in the fridge for a few hours and then skim the fat off the top. Voila, your (free) dose of collagen is served!
How do you consume bone broth? You can sip on a warm cup of broth throughout the day, or use the broth in any soup and stew recipe you like. It’s particularly great when you (or your children) are fighting off a cold or flu. You can even make bone broth popsicles!