Collagen: Cure-All or Curse?

  | Sustainability, Wellness

By Anne Fletcher, Wellness Manager

You have probably heard of collagen—the popular protein supplement recommended to support healthy joints, soothe digestive issues, and grow strong, radiant hair, skin, and nails.  Perhaps you have some that you got at the Co-op in your kitchen right now!  Over the past five years, collagen has grown from a fringe supplement with only a handful of options to the top of Wellness trends with huge representation in a variety of products.  At the Co-op, some of our best-selling items are collagen powders.

In March 2023, the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published a report, which deeply concerned me, detailing their findings about collagen sourcing.  It linked collagen in the US supply chain—and specifically Vital Proteins collagen, which is extremely popular with our shoppers at the Brattleboro Food Co-op—with deforestation in the Amazon.  I have since dug into the available facts and worked with fellow Wellness managers at cooperatives around the country and leaders at National Co-op Grocers (NCG) to find out more.  Through our research, we started to unlock a better understanding of this industry, including the many unknowns. While our Co-op is not in a position to completely discontinue carrying the collagen products we carry, education is essential to making informed decisions.


What is collagen?

Cattle in Brazilian Amazon

Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies.  It is the main component of our epithelial cells, such as our skin, the lining of our digestive tract, and the lining of our cardiovascular system. It makes up the connective tissue in our joints, our bones, and our facia that glues us together.  When we are younger, our bodies easily produce and regenerate collagen, but as we age we do not do so as effic

iently.  What’s more is that if we eat animal products, in typical diets, even healthy diets, we are frequently focused on the fleshy muscles rather than the tough parts, the skin, and the bones where the animal’s collagen is.

That’s where supplementation comes in.  Rather than chewing on gristle, adding fish scales to your bone broth, or even eating the once popular and ubiquitous gelatin salads, collagen supplements are a convenient, easily dissolvable and mostly flavorless powder that is simple to mix in smoothies, coffee, or oatmeal.

For the most part, collagen supplements are made up of collagen peptides.  Peptides are small pieces of protein that have been broken down from their original source: gelatin.  When broken down (with HCl, the same acid that is in our stomach), they no longer gel and are ready to be absorbed into our digestive system and made into new collagen in our bodies.

You may have gathered that collagen is an animal-sourced supplement. Approximately 90% of the collagen supplements on the market are from bovine source (usually beef hide).  There are also some collagen supplements made from marine sources, usually fish by-products.  Some products also contain collagen from other sources—usually chicken (bones and feet) and sometimes egg-shell membrane, though I have only seen these as an ingredient in a more complex supplement blend.

The makeup of amino acids in collagen does not make a complete protein, so, in fact, is not considered a good source of protein. The most abundant amino acid in collagen (glycine) is not considered essential because our bodies can build it from other protein sources.

There are no vegan sources of collagen.  However, there are many collagen-building supplements that are vegan.  These support your body’s ability to build your own collagen by providing plant-based amino acid mixes similar to collagen, vitamins that facilitate tissue building (particularly vitamin C, which is necessary to build tissue even if you consume animal-sourced collagen), and antioxidants that support tissue repair.  Animal-sourced collagen supplements generally do not contain the other necessary micronutrients that your body needs to build collagen, such as vitamin C.


How is collagen made?

Being derived from parts of animals not typically consumed, collagen grew in popularity partly because it was a way to “upcycle” by-products of the meat industry that might otherwise go to waste.  However, it’s important to remember that both the meat industry and cattle ranching can be big business.  What’s more is that, with the rise in popularity, collagen has become a commodity ingredient, meaning that there are many middlemen from animal to packager, adding difficulty to illuminating the true origin of the cattle that end up in the final product.

While collagen is manufactured all over the world, I want to talk specifically about the questionable origins of the collagen in Vital Proteins’ supply chain.

Through the cattle’s growth cycle, they are frequently transported around to different ranches as it gets bigger, which has become a strategy for companies to obscure the facts about their adherence to environmental laws and respect for indigenous territory.  In Brazil, campaigns for both the environment and indigenous rights have been able to definitively link major beef processors such as Marfrig and JBS (the two largest processors in Brazil) to violations, including encroachment on indigenous territory.

After being slaughtered, hides are sent to tanneries that treat them for rot, then separate the hides into products used for making leather and ingredients entering the collagen supply chain.  One such large tannery in Brazil is owned by Marfrig, and another is known to source from JBS, the big companies linked to violations. These raw materials are then purchased by food manufacturing companies that transform them into what we know as collagen supplements.  As reported by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, one company that produces the world’s most popular collagen ingredients, “Peptan,” sources their raw material from a Marfrig-owned tannery.  This processing company is owned by Darling Ingredients and exports collagen to the US and Europe.  Nestle, which owns Vital Proteins, sources collagen from Darling Ingredients.

Gelnex, also a global exporter of collagen, produces collagen sourced from the meat processor JBS, which has also been linked to deforestation and violence against indigenous communities.  Gelnex was recently acquired by Darling Ingredients.  According to the Darling Ingredients’ CEO, the acquisition will greatly increase the company’s collagen production.

In Brazil, the cattle industry accounts for 80% of all Amazon forest loss.  The rate of deforestation went up exponentially during the term of ex-President Jair Bolsonaro, who, among other things, is infamous for allowing violations of environmental laws and indigenous rights by slashing enforcement and allowing impunity during his term.  And the region in central Brazil where the Guardian report confirmed links to the Vital Proteins supply chain is also infamous for violence against indigenous communities, including a ranch directly linked to the forceful occupation of indigenous land.

Collagen is just one product of cattle ranching, which primarily produces beef for Brazil’s domestic market and for export.  However, because of the growth in popularity of collagen and the thin margins associated with raising and processing cattle, the income associated with the sale of other components actually has a significant impact on the bottom line.  No longer is it just an ingredient that is upcycled to save waste: it is a part of the business model.


How are companies responding?

When alerted by the investigative reporters about what they had found, Vital Proteins responded with surprise and concern.  Reporters shared that the company appeared genuinely unaware, and whether through authentic concern or pressure from consumers, quickly committed to renewed oversight.  They also stated that their supply chain will be “Deforestation Free” by 2025.

For myself and my counterparts at other co-ops, the report brought up concerns about other collagen suppliers.  Our partner, National Co-op Grocers (NCG), sent out a survey to the collagen companies they work with to get an idea of how much they know about their own supply chains.  Only two companies replied (Vital Proteins was not one of them): Ancient Nutrition and Garden of Life.

Ancient Nutrition’s popular “Multi-Collagen Protein” is made from approximately 90% bovine collagen.  They state that their collagen is sourced from cattle from Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.  I believe it is worth noting that both of the large meat processors indicated in the Guardian report are multinational corporations, and, having been to the region myself, I know there are similar issues of indigenous rights violations by agriculture (especially Brazilian-owned agriculture) in Paraguay, which borders Brazil close to where these issues have been brought to light. This does not mean that their sourcing is necessarily tainted.

Garden of Life, which, like Vital Proteins, is also owned by Nestle, states that their collagen is sourced from USA-raised cattle and processed in South Korea.  Despite being owned by Nestle, it’s very likely that Garden of Life has its own buyers who source only for Garden of Life.

I also reached out directly to Vitamer, the private-label company that makes our BFC Collagen Peptides.  They are sourced from a merged company called Nitta Gelatin and Vyse Gelatin.  They provided me with a certificate of origin for the material that goes into the BFC branded product, which is manufactured in Illinois from ingredients sourced from ten different countries, including the USA and Brazil.  They also provided a Progress Report in which they highlight their sustainable practices, mostly related to their actual production facilities, and treats raw materials as waste that is being upcycled.  Without specific verification, these statements do not confirm or reject a direct connection to deforestation.


What are the alternatives?

Because collagen must come from an animal source, it also cannot ever be truly organic because of the process involved in manufacturing it.  Thus, organic collagen does not exist, which is a shame given the increased level of transparency an organic certification would provide.

The next most popular source of collagen, far behind bovine, is marine-sourced.  The Co-op carries marine collagen that is sourced from waste material from wild-caught white fish.  Other sources may produce marine-sourced collagen from fish farm waste or even jellyfish.

Traditional sources of collagen are foods made from bones, gristle, and skin.  The most common and popular is bone broth, which can be made at home.  The Co-op sells both pre-made bone broth and frozen bones to make your own.  Of course, these will not result in a flavorless powder that mixes into anything you want, like collagen powder.  However, you may also end up with additional nutrients, including minerals or hyaluronic acid, by using the whole food instead.

There are also protein powders made from whey (dairy source) or sourced from plants.  Some have the added benefit of additional ingredients to encourage the regeneration of your own collagen.  What’s more is that most of the variations the Co-op carries offer complete amino acid profiles, which will provide the building blocks to maintain and build muscle.  Check out blends that call out “Collagen Building” to get specific benefits.

Vitamin C is an essential component in the ability of our tissue to heal and our bodies to make collagen.  Having a sufficient level of vitamin C can support all the same body systems you might want to take collagen for.

Glutamine is an amino acid that supports the gut tissue and is found in high levels in collagen.  It is available as a powder or in capsules/tablets.  Most glutamine supplements are lab-grown using bacteria.

Antioxidants and polyphenols, such as compounds found in turmeric, berries, or greens, can help combat cellular damage and protect the collagen in your body.  Seeking out colorful fruits and vegetables—including powders made from these ingredients—is a great way to add a powerful boost to your collagen.


What else can we do?

Individual choices are important, and we must have transparency and education to make them. However, in the age of urgent action and extreme consequences that we live in, should we really be forcing individual consumers to be the ones making informed choices, with all the work it requires?

Currently, the US does not have any regulations for the importation of products connected to deforestation.  In the EU, the importation of meat and leather from animals connected to deforestation is banned, but collagen falls through the cracks.  In October 2021, a bipartisan group of US congresspeople introduced legislation to regulate the importation of commodities linked to deforestation.  According to Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, “Consumers simply cannot rely on the representations of corporations when they are deciding whether or not to purchase a product… Our bill will give people the security to be sure that what they’re purchasing is not destroying ecosystems and kicking native people off of their land.”

Our Co-op is a drop in the bucket when it comes to our interaction with the complex supply chain revealed in this report.  Should we discontinue Vital Proteins, a significant source of revenue for our Wellness department?  If we did, would the other choices be any better?  Would our customers who still want Vital Proteins just buy it from Amazon?  While the research I put into writing this taught me a lot, it also left me with a lot of questions about how to move forward.

Ultimately, I hope for two things.  First, education will empower our customers to choose other options as discussed in the section on alternatives.  Secondly, when I meet with other leaders at an upcoming NCG summit, we can discuss ways to leverage our power.  I believe that is the best way to uphold our Co-op commitments to our planet and to our members.


If you have any questions or would like to voice any concerns, please email me at



“The dark side of collagen.” The Decibel (podcast), The Globe and Mail, March 27, 2023.

Marfrig “Wikipedia.” Last updated 18 June 2023.

Mendonça, E; A. Wasley, and F. Zuker.”Global craze for collagen linked to Brazilian deforestation.” The Guardian, 6 Mar 2023.  Accessed online at

Mendonça, E; A. Wasley, and F. Zuker.”Collagen Craze Drives Deforestation and Rights Abuses.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 6 Mar 2023.  Accessed online at

Nitta Gelatin NA Inc. (2022) Biennial CSR Report, 2022.

Schiffman, Richard.  “Demand for meat is destroying the Amazon. Smarter choices at the dinner table can go a long way to help.”  The Washington Post, 9 Mar 2022.  Accessed online at: