The rise of collagen: from secret ingredient to hip functional food

19 Jul 2023

While bakery R&D professionals are already familiar with collagen as an ingredient, consumers are also becoming increasingly aware of it. Some protein bars specifically mention it on their packaging, and more and more people know about its potential health benefits. With consumers seeking a more holistic approach to health, and paying more attention to what they eat, so collagen has become an increasingly desirable ingredient. In our worldwide Taste Tomorrow survey, 63% of respondents expressed an interest in bread tailored to their personal dietary needs, and 61%said the same about cakes and fine patisserie. 

Curious about the possible uses of collagen in bread, cakes and chocolate? Sarah de Pelsmaeker, Group Health & Well-Being director at Puratos, is a collagen expert. In this interview, she talks about how the industry can use this up-and-coming ingredient.

How come we’re suddenly hearing so much about collagen?

It’s long been known as a beauty supplement in Asian countries, a miracle cure that mothers tell their daughters about. In recent years, everyone else has started realizing its benefits.

I’ve seen the collagen market exploding since 2018, when several startups gained a lot of traction. One of them was Vital Proteins, a dietary supplement manufacturer that’s since been acquired by Nestlé. Consumers in Europe and the US are increasingly using collagen as a beauty supplement, and many sportsmen and women take it to protect their joints.

Collagen has also become an essential ingredient of functional foods. Many protein bars, drinks and shakes cite scientific studies highlighting its benefits. A few companies, mainly in the US, have marketed it very successfully, and it’s now made its way to South America and Europe.


What exactly are collagen’s benefits?

The dietary supplements industry is positioning collagen as a holistic ingredient. But there have also been specific clinical studies showing that it’s effective as a beauty ingredient, an ingredient for sportsmen and women, and for older people with mobility issues. It helps to maintain skin elasticity and create stronger nails and hair.

Bodybuilders and fitness fanatics often use proteins to build muscle mass. Collagen doesn’t do that, but it does benefit related parts of the body such as bones, joints, and tendons. If sportspeople work only on muscle strength, their joints and tendons won’t stay the pace.

Collagen is also becoming popular as a way of preventing injuries and joint damage in sports and among older people. Its effects have been clinically proven.


And how is it being used in the baking and patisserie sector?

Nearly all protein bars contain collagen, but it’s not really being marketed as an active ingredient. Whey proteins have a distinctive taste and increase viscosity, so you can only include so much in a bar. Because collagen molecules are smaller molecules, the bars can have higher protein concentrations.

The more traditional food industry has been fairly reluctant to use collagen as an ingredient, because you can’t make health claims for it. It’s very difficult to get an EFSA claim in Europe, but this is still a point of differentiation for many producers of everyday food items. 

The dietary supplements sector has taken it further. They’re already making active use of clinically proven ingredients like collagen by mixing them with vitamins and minerals that have EFSA claims. They’ve realized that packaging is no longer the only place where consumers look for information about ingredients, so it’s great if you can cite scientific evidence, or scientific claims from clinical studies.


What’s the difference between health claims and reporting scientific research outcomes?

Using Europe as an example again, there are some fibers that you can make health claims for. Manufacturers can promote foods containing these fibers as being good for things like digestion.  The same applies to vitamins and minerals. There are all sorts of claims you can make for vitamin C, iron, calcium, magnesium, and many others, but these are common knowledge among consumers, so they’re not very innovative.

Scientific claims are basically about citing scientific results. So for example, a company can cite one or more clinical studies. Its packaging can’t explicitly mention research outcomes or the benefits of ingredients, like ‘prevents skin aging’ or ‘strengthens bones’, but it can refer people to them. For instance it can put the information behind a QR code or use it in a marketing campaign. A website gives it more scope for explaining a scientific study.

When you’re a food manufacturer whose only contact with consumers is when they see your products in a supermarket or on your website, it’s less easy to share information with them. So you have to be inventive.


How can the bakery, patisserie and chocolate industries use collagen?

Bakers could add collagen to their biscuits and cakes, and there are already breads with collagen on the market. I think that’s where the most potential lies. Small artisanal chocolatiers can also add it to their products. Imagine getting your daily collagen requirement from a small piece of pure sugar-free chocolate. Isn’t that a great story to communicate? Most consumers don’t want to take daily food supplements, so it’s good if you can add beneficial ingredients like collagen to everyday products like bread and chocolate. That means they get enough from their normal diet, and don’t have to spend money on expensive supplements. But they aren’t actually aware of this.

You could probably add enough collagen to bread to ensure that three to four thin slices a day is sufficient. We need at least five grams a day, though most studies say eight to ten. You’d just need two slices of bread in the morning, two more at lunchtime, and a drink, biscuit or piece of chocolate at some other time. That way you can spread it out and you don’t need high doses. That could be the future of functional food ingredients.


What’s the best way to position collagen products?

The best sales opportunities lie in promoting collagen as a beauty or fitness ingredient. Those get the most rapid effects. Some people find they get stronger nails, shinier hair and even better skin after a few weeks of taking it daily.

So it’s easy to sell. People taking regular exercise will find their performance improving after a month, and they’ll have less pain after training. So here again, it’s easier to persuade them after they’ve been taking it for maybe a month.

It’s harder to communicate the benefits in terms of aging. As you get older, your body breaks down more collagen than it makes, so your skin gets drier and more wrinkled and your pores get bigger. What you don’t see is what happens inside you: your bone mineral density decreases, and your bones are less good at retaining calcium.

Here again, collagen plays a big role, but you don’t see the effects so quickly. You have to take it for a long time, and of course you don’t feel that your bones are stronger, though you may get less pain and stiffness.


Is it easy to add collagen to bread and patisserie?  

It’s a pure protein, and very versatile in terms of its applications, so it’s easy to mix with other ingredients. It has a neutral flavor, and it’s bake stable, which means there are lots of ways you can use it. I think it will be very interesting to see if collagen can be added to everyday products like bread. Diet is an important way of preventing chronic illness, so I think scientifically proven ingredients like collagen will be much more widely used in daily nutrition.

Explaining the results of clinical studies to consumers will be crucial, so I think the fundamental research and food sectors need to work together to promote human health worldwide. This is our mission at Puratos. We’re striving to market innovative bakery, patisserie, and chocolate solutions, because tasty and healthy is the future.

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