Let Water Be Water, Not Something Else Gross
(May 14, 2019)
You may not be aware of this latest weird trend, which is why I am bringing it to your attention. I am happy to do this, because it is my job. Here it is: There is a new Thing. It is called “collagen water”. (Yuk!)
I know about collagen water not because the person next to me at the gym was drinking it, or because there was a huge glossy ad for it in Glamour, or because I saw Gwyneth Paltrow talking about it on Oprah!, or because someone at work or my aunt or an online ad told me about it. Because if I had access to any of those things (Note: ad blockers are glorious things), I’m sure I would have known about it a long time ago. Apparently, that is the way one becomes informed about these things in the real world which, I am finding out for the umpteenth time, I don’t really inhabit after all.
No, I know about this only because I passed by a huge honking display of collagen water (blueberry mint! lemon ginger!) several times at Whole Foods this weekend – once on my way to fill up my jugs with old-fashioned reasonably normal water, and three more times because I thought that I might have imagined it the first time. But it was there each time I sidled by, so I know that it's real. Otherwise, I wouldn't be sure.
Collagen is a very common body protein (really a class of proteins). It is a passive structural molecule that has umpteen variations since different structures of the body have differing demands made on them. Since collagen is not particularly chemically active, it is not very sexy and has traditionally been sort of underappreciated. It’s nice to see it getting a little love, but really, a mountain of plastic bottles of water containing gooey bits of protein? Seems a little odd.
Or so I thought at the time, silly person that I was, inhabiting a bubble of glorious ignorance. Little did I know what a Thing, as I have said, collagen had become. As usual, on the basis of very little evidence, but hey – those are the products the nutrition industry likes the best.
Because once you’ve thoroughly researched a nutrient, and know what it is, what it does, and how much to take to help with what specific problems, the bloom is off the product rose, so to speak. At that point, a supplement manufacturer has strict rules to follow and creativity is frowned upon. But up until that grim moment, the inventive and larcenous -- er, I mean enterprising -- supplement manufacturer can shapeshift a simple cheap compound into all manner of edibles, allege benefits for it that are far from proven, and (as in the case of said collagen water) put just a bit of it together with some flavoring and charge up the yinyang for it.
Like CBD, this is the sweet spot that collagen occupies right now. There are a few very limited studies showing that it may help with some types of joint pain, and may also modestly improve skin elasticity and improve wrinkles. Ding ding ding! Collagen is now the Fountain of Youth! At least until someone proves that it isn't, and that could take a while. In the meantime, supplement manufacturers have already leapt out of the starting gate. A really cheap nutrient without any specifications as to its exact composition and how it needs to be delivered, and no results expected except some vague, intangible benefits that the consumer will morph, without any encouragement, into his or her magic cure? That’s what health is all about! Isn't it?
To my mind, collagen water (urrrrk - what a horrible thought) is an unholy chimera of – well, nutrients. Water, sugar, mushed-up protein from cow hide (yup, look at the label) and “natural flavorings” (which usually means “sugar”). Mind you, I say “nutrients” because they technically ARE nutrients. But that aside, there is nothing in this consumer item that even begins to justify the $4.99 (without tax) price for TWELVE OUNCES. Not even hibiscus flavoring can justify that, dude and dudettes.
Personally, I think you’re wasting money on collagen supplements of any type. But if you MUST, here are a few sage words of advice:
-- “Bone broth” is something people often use as a collagen supplement. But commercial bone broth is usually mainly beef or chicken broth (all different parts of the animal, not just bones) as its first ingredient. If you really want bone broth, which is chock full of that squishy collagen we're talking about, you ought to just make your own. If you’re buying it, at least check the label to see what it is you’re paying for.
-- The powdered bone broths cost a whole lot less than the prepared ones. If you’re drinking this stuff (seriously, ugh) daily as a source of collagen, look into the powdered ones. There’s straight-up powdered collagen, too.
-- The studies that HAVE been done, have been done specifically on a particular type of collagen prepared in a certain way. (This specificity is true of any early-stage nutrient research, and is even more true of collagen, seeing as there are five main classes of it -- with 28 different sub-types.) So if you’re looking for a particular benefit, you should be looking for a particular type of collagen. Bone broths usually have a mix of nonspecific collagens.
-- Gelatin (and you know what THAT is) is a form of collagen. Ya wanna go cheap, gelatin's your girl. Most of the collagen in bone broth is gelatin anyway.
-- It’s very possible that any collagen supplement, no matter the type, is broken down in the gut into simple amino acids, the building blocks of all proteins. Meaning that by the time it’s actually absorbed, your body can’t tell whether you took a pricey collagen supplement, swallowed a gelatin drink or ate a hamburger. In the end, a collagen supplement may not be different from protein in any other form. That would make the five-dollar tab for ten grams of collagen in that icky collagen water a truly outstanding waste of money.
That’s one thing that needs to be understood about almost any nutrient, by the way. No matter what form you take something in, your body doesn’t usually absorb it like that. It breaks it down as far as it can in your stomach and gut before it is permitted to enter the bloodstream, because that’s what your stomach and gut are FOR. Large (or even largeish) molecules are NOT absorbed in the form you take them in unless you are really messed up. Collagen (since it is just a protein after all) very likely is one of those substances.
-- Be prepared to take the stuff for at least six months before you decide whether or not it’s doing what you want.
Still wanna drink strawberry lemon flavored bits of goo? Dollars to donuts there’s something out there that costs a lot less that’ll do you a lot more good than a $5-a-day collagen drink. Of course, it’s your money after all, and it’s still a reasonably free country. So drink it if you want. But -- bleccch.
--dr. diane holmes
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