Collagen is often celebrated for being a clean protein option. It often contains just a single ingredient and skips all of the questionable additives of other protein powders.
We are particularly passionate about the benefits of Collagen before, during, and after pregnancy, and cover this topic in detail in this blog post. We also share some guidance on increased protein needs during pregnancy here, and why even vegetarian mamas may want to consider adding it into their diets here.
But despite Collagen's many virtues, the truth is that not all Collagen is created equal. In fact, not even all grass-fed, pasture-raised, hydrolyzed collagen is created equal.
We at Needed learned this as we set out to create our own hydrolyzed Collagen Protein for pregnancy. And just recently, others have started to catch on. The Organic Consumers Association and Clean Label Project put out a report that helps elucidate the considerable range in quality, so we wanted to share with you.
In short, just as not all prenatal vitamins are created equal in terms of quality, not all collagen is created equal. We’ll dive into the report to share a bit more about what types of substances can show up in collagen that don’t show up on the label. We also want to share the results of our own testing to help ease your mind about the quality and care we put into our products.
As always, we share this information not to scare or fear monger, but to empower you with information so that you can make educated choices. We know many mamas are quite busy and don’t have the time to dig into the details, and we are here to do it for you!
Clean Label Report
- 64% of the collagen products tested had measurable levels of Arsenic on a per serving basis ranging from 0.09 micrograms/serving up to 4.7 micrograms/serving.
- Garden of Life Unflavored Collagen Peptides had the most amount of Arsenic among the 30 collagen products tested.
- However, none of the products tested exceeded the 10 micrograms/serving State of California threshold. We acknowledge that a certain level of metals exist in all soil, so it is likely that these low levels are simply naturally-occurring rather than due to poor sourcing or quality.
- 17% of the collagen products tested had measurable levels of Cadmium on a per serving basis ranging from 0.23 micrograms/serving up to 9.17 micrograms/serving (the State of California threshold has a threshold of 4.1 mcg/day.
- Bulletproof Collagen Protein Chocolate had the highest amount of Cadmium among the 30 collagen products tested. A single serving tested had over 2 times the State of California’s Prop 65 threshold.
- 37% of the products tested had measurable levels of Lead on a per serving basis ranging from 0.09 micrograms/serving up to 1.57 micrograms/serving
- Orgain Collagen Peptides, Unflavored had the most amount of Lead among the 30 collagen products tested.
- A single serving of Orgain Collagen Peptides, Unflavored had over 3 times the State of California threshold. Ancient Nutrition Keto Collagen Chocolate, Bulletproof Collagen Protein Chocolate, and Preferred Elements Keto Collagen Chocolate all had over 2 times the State of California threshold.
Why is this Happening?
Before we get into the why, let’s look quickly at the how. Collagen supplements are made from animal byproducts, including the skin or hide, tendons, scales, bones, cartilage, and connective tissues left over after cows, chickens, pigs, and fish have been processed for their meat, and in some cases, eggshells. These animal byproducts are boiled down until they turn into a gelatin. The gelatin then undergoes hydrolyzation to break down the proteins into smaller units, called peptides, so the human body can better absorb and use them.
So why is this happening to the otherwise “clean” collagen products that brands advertise? In large part it goes back to sourcing. Many collagen supplements come from animals raised on industrial factory farms or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) - where among other things, the animals are exposed to heavy metals. Even beef collagen advertised as made with the hides of grass-fed cattle are potentially contaminated, as most grass-fed beef in the US comes from Brazil and Argentina, where many “grass-fed beef” operations have been converted to US-style CAFOs. Of course, we also recognize that some levels of metals are simply impossible to avoid as all soil has some contamination. Even the “cleanest” brands listed in this report show low levels of many metals, indicating that even if you do take great effort to source well, some impurities will still exist. Of course, this is true with any food, even fresh food pulled from organic soil.
It’s impossible to completely avoid these metals in your food, but, our bodies are equipped with natural detox mechanisms to rid low levels of these metals. It is more challenging for our bodies to detoxify larger quantities found in many processed products, including some of the Collagen products listed in the Clean Label Project report. That’s why optimal nutritional support really matters, as we are best able to detox metals and other toxins when nutrient status is high. How can you ensure you are nutritionally supported? Focus on healthy whole foods, organic and responsibly sourced when possible, and include a high-quality multivitamin like our Prenatal Multi.
In addition to levels in soil, some beef collagen products are made from discarded animal hides that have been highly processed. Hides can be soaked in acid, and treated with sulfides (to remove hair), chromium, bleach, color dyes, and other chemicals. These treatments help “sterilize” and prolong the life of the hides so that they don’t have to be immediately processed. The already-processed scraps then undergo additional processing to dissolve the hide and release the collagen peptides.
It sounds awful, but sadly, it reflects the state of much of our food system. We as consumers are faced with the unfortunate burden of carefully vetting all of the products we purchase and consume, as we simply can’t trust many producers and manufacturers to have the best interest of our health as a priority. Fostering a safe and healthy food system ultimately comes down to two things:
- Consumers really knowing who they are purchasing from - vetting the companies that they choose to buy from and supporting only those companies that do take care to test their finished products, and who are transparent about their quality practices and test results
- Suppliers continuously going through the time, effort, and expense to test to confirm safety and quality.
Why it Matters
Heavy metals, even at low levels, are known to cause organ damage, and some are classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer as known or probable carcinogens. Both animals and humans have trouble metabolizing heavy metals, so toxins can accumulate in soft tissue and bones - the very parts of the animal used to make collagen. Therefore, it’s important to trust the source of all animal and plant products you put in your body.
Being cautious is particularly important when pregnant or breastfeeding. Mercury, lead, and cadmium are toxins, which are well-known to cross the placenta and to accumulate in fetal tissues. Research has shown that “prenatal exposure to mercury and lead poses a health threat, particularly to the developing brain.” Furthermore, fetal exposures to lead and cadmium correlate with reduced birth weight and birth size, and all of these metals have also been shown to adversely affect placental functions, risking the proper passage of necessary nutrients to your baby.
What You Can Do
As we discussed in this post about heavy metals in prenatal vitamins, there are certain things you can do to minimize your exposure to heavy metals in the products you consume, but you can never fully avoid them. Of course, the best thing to do in the case of collagen is to buy from a company that performs independent, third-party testing on their products. We at Needed take the extra time and bear the expense of testing each batch of our products for your safety.
Our Collagen and Testing Standards
We’ve always taken care to source and manufacture carefully and responsibly, and we engage in thorough third-party testing to confirm our quality. We source our hydrolyzed Collagen from the hides of grass-fed, pasture-raised, hormone-free bovines from farms that are committed to ethical practices.
Our collagen was not part of the review performed in 2020, but we have always independently tested our collagen (and all of our products) through Eurofins, a leader in testing and safety. The results of the most recent tests are listed below.
In addition, The Clean Label Project has since performed independent testing of our Prenatal Collagen Protein and our Women’s Collagen Protein and granted us the Clean Label Project Purity Award.