How a non-FDA-approved product has risen in fame within the beauty and health industry.
“Must-Have Rejuvenating Supplement for Aging Skin”
You know this headline is probably another hoax, but on the off chance it is the outlier, you click anyway. The product promises stronger nails and hair, plumper skin, fewer fine lines and less bone or joint pain: a beauty and health elixir from the gods. The slew of rejuvenating complexes is offered in pill or powder formulations: collagen supplements. You click on the blue-highlighted words that lead you to a portal. After social media channels have been thoroughly sifted through, you come across a post of a cheerful, youthful gal who looks as happy as can be sipping on her coffee, @chickpeainthecity. “My hair and nails are growing like crazy after taking @vitalproteins collagen peptide.” You look at her hair–notice the shine and length–and before you know it, with the help of Amazon Prime’s next-day shipping, you are putting the powder in the morning coffee—the power of marketing.
Collagen is the main structural protein of connective tissue in animals, found not only in bones, but also skin, cartilage and tendons. It is also the most abundant protein in the human body. As you age, collagen production slows by becoming less efficient in being able to replace the tissue in places such as skin and joints. Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Leslie Bernstein from Lakeview Dermatology says, “in most collagens, the molecules are packed together to form long, thin fibrils. In the dermis, or in the middle layer of skin, collagen helps form a fibrous network of cells called fibroblasts, upon which new cells grow.” The telltale signs of aging emerge as the structural elasticity and integrity of the skin declines, like those collections of grooved lines across the forehead or a pang in the knee when you bend down to tie your shoe.
Beauty brands and health supplement companies alike are creating ingestible collagen supplements, and they advertise the ability to boost or replace the natural levels of collagen lost over time.
Collagen supplements have overwhelmed the market by seeping into the beauty industry with promises of stronger hair, skin and nails; the protein industry with the allure of an easy and efficient protein powder; and the sports medicine industry with the promise of alleviating arthritic joints. These industries have confused the narrative around these supplements. The supplements are not approved by the FDA and have not undergone extensive research, yet there is a continuous upswing in the conversations surrounding the ample amount of supposed health properties that can be gained from taking the capsules or powder supplements.
Tweetreach, a database mining company that compiles mentions across Twitter, found that from May 29-June 4 the buzzword ‘collagen supplements’ had an estimated reach of 719,092 accounts and an exposure of 891,619 impressions. The buzzword ‘collagen’ had a similar number with an estimated reach of 787,738 accounts and an exposure of 908,463 impressions. Instead of over a seven day period, this number was from one day.
Publications such as Vogue, Time, Women’s Health, and even The Wall Street Journal have increasingly covered the topic of collagen. Each addresses the speculation and the under-researched element of the products, but they have still caught attention with the positive attributes companies attach to the collagen supplements—stronger nails, hair and skin, settling digestive issues and aiding in joint pain.
“Ever since using Vital Proteins collagen peptide supplement, I have really seen an improvement in my hair and nails,” says Instagram Influencer of @chickpeainthecity, Addie Martanovic. “They keep growing like crazy!” Martanovic uses the supplement in her morning smoothies or matcha tea lattes and sees the benefit not only tangibly in her hair and nails but also in how she feels from the inside. “I’ve found that when it comes to purchasing pasture-raised products where animals aren’t injected with growth hormones and antibiotics,” says Martanovic, “I can really taste it in the quality of the food and I feel better overall.”
“The specific benefits of collagen supplements, or really any supplement,” Dr. Bernstein says, “is hard to define because when you use it you cannot control the variable of where the supplement will finally settle within your body after digestion.”
You cannot target a supplement to only one area. However, Dr. Bernstein says, “the proteins are broken down and absorbed in the GI tract. The thing is, there just hasn’t been enough research done to measure where the protein is deposited after it goes through the GI tract.”
Collagen supplements are composed of a hydrolyzed protein generally from animal sources—cow, pig or fish–and can be taken from the hide, hair or hooves. One of the most popular brands on the market is Vital Proteins with Bovine and Marine collagen peptide supplements. The collagen is taken from bovine animal hides through a rigorous process that begins by placing the hides into large cement vats that are filled with a liquid that makes the lime vats a large acid bath to strip the hair from the hide. The hide is then cooked in a mixture of water at varying degrees, never reaching above 190 degrees, according to the Vital Proteins website.
Vital Proteins website states a slew of benefits that they have seen from taking their collagen peptide supplements, such as “glowing skin, a more youthful appearance, joint health, tendon & bone strength, healthy cartilage, increased athletic performance, improved digestion, gut health and deeper sleep.” Before each of these statements, there are two asterisk stars with a public service statement at the bottom of the page stating “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any diseases.”
Horween Leather Company is the last tannery in Illinois and uses bovine and equine hides to make their unique treated leather. They have the opportunity to sell the collagen and connective protein from the bovine’s hair or hide, but the company chooses to not be involved in the supplement business. Vice President Nick Horween explained the steps following the collagen rising to the surface of the hides if they ever chose to sell the substance. “Once the collagen, which is basically a white substance consisting of a mixture of fat and connective tissue, rises to the top, you would gather the fat,” says Horween. “Place it in a dehydrator of sorts, and then you would grind the substance down into a powder-like substance that people are pawning off as an organic and healthy beauty product. While the hides could have been pasture-raised or grass-fed, they still must go through the same process of extracting the hair in limed acid vats or boiling the hides to extract the collagen. Personally, I know too much to ever buy into the concept that those supplements are all-natural.”
These companies, such as Vital Proteins and HUM nutrition, have taken the opportunity that social media has provided by partnering with Instagram influencers to promote their products to a targeted group of individuals. Hello Society, an influencer social media and marketing agency that was acquired by The New York Times in 2016, defines a micro-blogger as an account with 30,000 or fewer followers. According to the agency’s internal data report from February 2017, engagement rates are 60 percent higher for campaigns driven by a micro-influencer and are 6.7 times more cost efficient per engagement than Influencers with large followings. Micro Influencers have 22.2 times more weekly conversations than the average consumer because they create an online community that has a built trust with the followers. Influencers, especially micro influencers, are some of the most powerful advertising tools available to smaller companies.
Vital Proteins, a non-FDA approved collagen and beef gelatin supplement company, utilizes this tactic of micro-bloggers, and often works with influencers who have 3,000 to 200,000—focusing on accounts with under 50,000 followers. This strategic strategy is used to circulate the product amongst a community of like-minded individuals who have cultivated a relationship of trust and loyalty, and Vital Proteins doesn’t have to pay thousands of dollars to get someone to endorse the product. Free product or a payment of around $500 dollars is standard for an account with under 50,000 followers.
Vital Proteins Instagram account @vitalproteins has a following of 299k and typically posts one time a day at 12:30 P.M. with an average of 2,000 likes and 30 comments.
Instagram influencer Addie Martanovic, or better known as @chickpeainthecity, has an account focused on food and lifestyle in Chicago, Illinois with a following of 55.4k followers. On May 22, 2018 @chickpeainthecity posted a sponsored Instagram post on her feed that told a story of how she kicked the habit of drinking coffee and started a new habit. “I kick one bad habit by beginning another one that makes us feel better inside and out—for myself, that was adding @vitalproteins collagen peptide to my smoothies and their #matcha collagen every. single. morning.” The post also included a mention to go to her bio that redirects the user to Vital Proteins website with a list of hashtags that are associated with the brand such as #stayvital or #vitalproteins. The post garnered 1,063 likes and 29 comments along with 55.4k impressions.
Exactly 30,510 posts appear when #vitalproteins is searched under hashtags on Instagram. The #stayvital has 8,583 posts that feature Vital Proteins product within almost all the posts. This does not include the number of posts, stories or comments that Vital Proteins is tagged or mentioned in, and the posts that are using the hashtags are quality posts. When scrolling through the first several pages of posts, over 75% of the posts were created by Micro Influencers or major Influencers with a reach in the thousands. Their products can be found in stores such as Whole Foods and Target nationwide.
The rapid growth of a company, such as Vital Proteins, that sells a collagen peptide supplement without any major scientific studies or the approval of the FDA can be attributed to the targeted social media promotions across platforms. It is also due to having a product that people respond to. Whether it is a placebo effect or it is a truly restorative collagen supplement remains unknown, but millions of people are buying into the idea and lifestyle behind the product.
Loss or slowing of collagen production is something you won’t be able to prevent, but you may be able to slow down the process and preserve the collagen you still have. Dr. Bernstein’s suggestion of the best way to protect your skin’s collagen production is a holistic approach. She suggests “not smoking, using sunblock, applying photo-protecting antioxidants, hydroxy acids, vitamins B and C, and, most important, using Retin-A.”
Or, you could roll the dice and be okay with putting a non-FDA approved, acid-baked collagen powder from an animal's hide, hooves or hair into your coffee every morning. It’s a choice.