Fill by mouth

Can a collagen drink really keep you looking young?

The Sunday Times 24 February 2013

Anti-ageing wonder foods, beauty “cosmeceuticals” that you put in your mouth rather than on your skin, are set to become the boom of the decade.

Collagen-containing coffee, marshmallows, yoghurts and food additives have taken the Far East by storm and are beginning to arrive here. One of them, an expensive daily drink called Pure Gold Collagen, has already captured a substantial chunk of this new British market, and it’s not unusual to find delighted customers providing self-justifying spiels to their neighbours in the queue at Boots in an effort to prove they are not all suckers. How logical, though, is it to tuck into an expensively packaged dose of skin-plumping agent in the hope it will magically pass from your intestines to your crow’s-feet?

Well, not as bonkers as you might think. Research appears to show that some of the breakdown products of hydrolysed collagen taken by mouth migrate to areas in need of repair to boost skin and joint regeneration.

The craze for oral collagen is well established in Japan, where, for more than a decade, scientists have been producing evidence that ingesting hydrolysed collagen can lead to skin regeneration. Experiments using sophisticated radioactive tags have shown the components of different types of hydrolysed collagen can be identified in areas far from the gut, where they may be stimulating the production of new skin cells and of hyaluronic acid, a natural skin-plumping agent produced in the body and now routinely used by cosmetic doctors as an injectable filler.

Collagen is a protein that forms the connective tissue found in all animals. In humans it provides suppleness, strength and elasticity for connective tissues, such as tendons, ligaments and, most importantly from a cosmetic point of view, skin. Collagen sourced from animals is used to make gelatin, the setting agent used in foods and skin creams. Sadly, natural collagen production declines with age, a root cause of skin wrinkling and the stiffening of joints.

You can check your own collagen status by simply pinching the back of your hand. If you can pull up a big fold of thin skin, detached from the underlying layers, there is no denying your skin is getting old. The same painless test on a child will pull up a nice thick wodge of flesh that’s well attached to the underlying tissue, and it will not lift very far.

However, if the secret of eternal youth were simply a matter of stuffing yourself with collagen-containing foods, then elderly meat eaters would look pretty good and ageing vegetarians appreciably more wizened and wrinkled. It does not work like that. The argument for consuming this modified collagen is that its specific breakdown products can travel through the walls of the digestive system and speed up cell production in the skin and joints.

Julie McManus, the British scientific director for L’Oréal, says its researchers are working on this approach, and the extra cell growth poses no health risks. “You are not changing the behaviour of the stem cell with this approach, you are simply improving the efficiency of the factors that make it work normally,” she says.

Ian Hamley, professor of physical chemistry at Reading University, is about to publish a study showing that the production of fibroblasts, the principal component of skin cells, can be dramatically boosted in test tubes by using collagen-breakdown products. “There does seem to be some evidence that these fragments can be digested and pass into the bloodstream,” he says. “The problem is most of these companies don’t really publish their work, because they don’t want their competitors to copy it, so it is difficult to find out exactly what evidence they have.”

Many British skin experts can’t quite believe the hype. Des Tobin, professor of dermatology at Bradford University, acknowledges minor improvements in collagen have been shown from using skin creams, but, he says, “I’ll only really believe the collagen-drink story when independently validated evidence emerges to support the claims.”

“There is already a lot of research showing new collagen can be generated for wound healing,” says Tony Sanguinetti, the entrepreneur behind Minerva Laboratories, which produces Gold Collagen. “We are positioning the product as a food supplement, but we are also planning medical research at Oxford University to show the product works.”

As cosmetic companies, including the toiletries giant Proctor & Gamble, race to produce research evidence to back up the use of rival collagen products of their own, the devoted takers of collagen are sold on it without the clinical proof.

Gold Collagen has arranged endorsements from television celebrities of a certain age, including Carol Smillie, 51, and Anthea Turner, 52, but it has also won the backing of plenty of ordinary women. Allyson Hognett, 52, who is the secretary at Sanguinetti’s son’s London primary school, said she won a two-month supply of Gold Collagen that Minerva donated to a school raffle a year ago. At £3 to £4 a bottle, depending on where you buy it, she could not afford to go on using it daily, but she claims she is still getting a dramatic effect with only two bottles a week. “It’s amazing,” she says. “My sister couldn’t believe the change in my face. She refused to believe I hadn’t got fillers.” Although you can hear similar endorsements from other customers, perhaps the rest of us would prefer to wait for the research evidence.

Gold Collagen tastes very pleasant. I have been knocking back a 50ml bottle a day as instructed, but have yet to notice a startling difference. It has been only a week, though, so I’m giving it time.