Features | From Pivot Magazine

Collagen: quack or cure-all?

Powdered, drinkable collagen is packaged and priced like perfume and promises to slow signs of aging. Judging by sales, it’s an easy claim to swallow.

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Kourtney Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow holding drinksKourtney Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow are among collagen’s boosters (Photos by Getty)

When Kourtney Kardashian introduced the first item from her new lifestyle brand, Poosh, earlier this year, it wasn’t the usual celebrity-endorsed lipstick. Instead, the reality TV star launched what she described as her longtime beauty secret: collagen powder. She was right on trend. Drinkable collagen is the dietary supplement industry’s latest darling, marketed as both a health product and a beauty must-have, and sold in retailers like Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and Sephora. The promise is that collagen—the main structural protein in the body, which dips with age—can be taken orally to help smooth fine lines, add lustre to hair and strengthen joints, bones and muscles.

It doesn’t seem to matter much that the science on collagen supplements—which are made from bovine or marine sources—is still being debated. A recent Journal of Drugs in Dermatology review of 11 randomized, placebo-controlled trials found “promising” preliminary results for using collagen to treat skin aging. But as Dr. Mark Moyad, director of preventive and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan, told Time magazine, “The studies [on collagen] are weak in general”—too small and too short. There’s not enough evidence that consuming collagen will actually increase the body’s levels of it, he noted. 

Nevertheless, ingestible collagen has become so popular that growth in the category is significantly outpacing growth of the overall dietary supplements business. “For collagen supplements, in 2019, we’re estimating sales will reach US$230 million in the U.S., an estimated [year-over-year] growth of 32.9 per cent,” says Claire Morton Reynolds, senior industry analyst at Nutrition Business Journal, which specializes in data insights for the health industry. At this rate, the collagen category is expected to exceed US$400 million by 2022. By comparison, adds Reynolds, the overall supplements industry grew at about six per cent last year.

Despite longtime enthusiasm for “nutricosmetics” in Asia and Europe, the drinkable collagen market in North America has only taken off in the past five years. Several factors are driving the momentum, and novelty is high on the list: “Consumers are interested in supplements that aren’t your typical pills,” Reynolds explains. Many have started treating supplementing as a stylish lifestyle ritual: stir a scoop of Kardashian’s product, called Pink Moon Milk Collagen Latte (US$49), from its pink-lidded canister into a cup of warm water, sip it like an Americano misto and call it self-care. 

Last year, Gwyneth Paltrow, who normalized the idea of splurging on alt-health remedies, launched a vanilla-cake-flavoured collagen supplement called Goop Genes. 

The pale pink marine-sourced powder is sold in 12-gram single-use packets, which come in a box that bears a rose-coloured double helix. The supplement is carried at fashion retailers like Nordstrom and Net-a-Porter—US$28 for a five-pack or US$95 for a month’s supply of 30 packets. 

Vital Proteins, the company that collaborated with Kourtney Kardashian on Pink Moon Milk, is often credited as the first to make drinkable collagen stylish. Launched in 2012, it initially targeted fitness buffs, with a strategy focused on product education. But soon the company realized that 80 per cent of the people ordering from its website were women—and they were buying for beauty benefits, not for joint repair, as Caryn Johnson, senior vice-president of marketing for the company, explained in a recent interview with Fast Company. So it pivoted, targeting millennial women interested in beauty and wellness. “The customers chose us as a beauty brand,” says Johnson—and the company ran with it, showcasing its products at beauty trade shows and updating its packaging with brighter, more feminine colours. 

In Canada, Burnaby, B.C.-based WithinUs Natural Health is emerging as a standout in the category, taking a similar approach that emphasizes premium positioning (a 50-serving box of TruMarine Collagen costs $75), careful ingredient sourcing (its collagen comes from wild, sustainably sourced fish) and celebrity buzz (Michelle Obama’s facialist has name-checked the brand’s supplements as a skin care must-have). The strategy has been so successful, WithinUs ranked 35th on Report on Business’s 2019 list of Canada’s top growing companies, with revenues of more than $2 million in 2018, and three-year revenue growth of 1,378 per cent. 

As the market for collagen grows, more accessible formats—such as fruit-flavoured collagen water and collagen coffee creamers—have entered the market. As for what’s next, there’s an emerging sub-niche of vegan collagen boosters, says Reynolds. There are no non-animal sources of collagen, so companies such as Richmond, B.C.-based Organika Health Products are marketing drinkable powders that encourage the body to make more of its own collagen. Reynolds also predicts more targeting of male consumers: “I think that’s where the opportunity lies, because collagen does have a lot of benefits outside of hair, skin and nails.” It’s a good source of protein and is said to help post-workout muscle recovery and repair.

The relative novelty of drinkable collagen in North America means there’s space for newcomers to break in. “The market is very fragmented,” says Alecsandra Hancas, beauty industry analyst for market research company the NPD Group in Canada. Given the prestige skin care market is now a $1-billion business in Canada, products tapping into consumer appetite for eternal youth—ingestible or otherwise—have lots of room to grow.