If you’re looking for collagen to boost your workout or lead to faster fat loss, there are better protein options. But, if you’re hoping for healthier skin, joint health benefits, and potentially some help fighting inflammation, then the right collagen product could be exactly what you need (just make sure you take a close look at the label).

Have you ever wondered why collagen -- a protein with only 3 amino acids -- is nearly twice as expensive as proteins that have all 20 amino acids?

It's a common question asked by some of the most respected nutritionists, and something to keep in the back of your mind when searching for the right collagen powder for you. Collagen has some benefits, but there's more to the protein than meets the eye.

In order to make sure you find the best product, here's what you need to know so you can experience all the benefits and avoid the false expectations.

What is Collagen Protein?

Collagen is a protein made of 3 amino acids (glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline) that are important to your skin, hair, joints, bones, muscles, veins, and organs.

Your body naturally produces collagen, but your body starts to create less after you turn 30.

A supplement can help, but finding the right supplement makes a big difference.

Remember how we mentioned that collagen was a 3-amino-acid protein?  Here's why that's important. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Each amino acid has different benefits, and you experience the benefits of amino acids (like younger skin or faster recover) when you consume all of the essential amino acids (EAAs).

Any protein that has all 9 of the EAAs is considered a "complete protein." And once all 9 are present in your system, then your body can put them to good use. 

But, if all 9 amino acids are not present, then your body isn't able to put them to use (something scientists refer to as "the limiting amino acid"). In other words, when one amino acid is deficient or not present, proteins can only be synthesized to the level of availability of that amino acid. And because your amino acids are replenished every 4-6 hours, you need a constant stream of protein and amino acids.

That means if you're only taking collagen protein -- with its 3 amino acids -- your body would be limited and unable to put the collagen protein to its best use.

[Editor's note: Complete proteins are why Plant or Whey Protein are so popular. They have benefits for everything from muscle building and fat loss, to fighting against aging, boosting your hair and skin, and speeding recovery after exercise.]

That's can be frustrating, but the good news is that if you take the right type of collagen (or just combine it with the right protein), you can unlock many benefits. Here's what you can do to make that happen. 

The Best Type of Collagen Protein

There are 2 ways to make the most of collagen protein. First of all, make sure you look at the type of collagen you're using. In particular, type-II collagen (also called UC-II) is what you need to see experience the multiple benefits (more on those in a moment).

Most collagen is hydrolyzed collagen, which is not the same thing as UC-II. Hydrolyzed collagen is perfectly healthy, but many of its benefits are lost during the digestive process. Your stomach has powerful acids, which research shows breaks down hydrolyzed collagen and makes it possible that those amino acids won't survive.

Type-II collagen protein has a different chemical structure, meaning it can slip through the back door of the digestive process, maintain its chemical properties, and still offer you benefits.

Also, if you want to ensure that you have all of the essential amino acids (so your body can utilize collagen), then combine your collagen with another protein supplement like whey or pea protein (both have all the EAAs), or combine with a protein-rich meal, such as fish, eggs, meat, dairy, or even rice and beans (the combination has all the amino acids).

Collagen Protein Benefits

If you're looking to improve your skin and have joints that feel better, then collagen might be a great choice. Most evidence on collagen supplementation shows that it can improve skin complexion and reduce so-called "imperfections."

Research suggests you can expect the following benefits:

  • Increased skin hydration
  • Fewer cracks and dry skin
  • Fewer lines
  • Reduces the appearance of cellulite in women.

While more research is needed, the skin benefits appear the most likely to hold the test of time because the collagen in protein is similar in structure to the collagen in your skin. And that's the exact reason why some other claims are a little more concerning.

If you can find undenatured type-II collagen, then you might find benefits such as less pain and swelling in your joints.

Collagen Hype

While the above benefits have support, you won’t find evidence that collagen improves your workout or helps with fat loss or muscle gain.

If you're focused on those goals, taking a high-quality protein powder will still be more effective because of many of the reasons listed above (more amino acids, bioavailability, and it's broken down better in your stomach).

To ensure that any supplements you take -- collagen or otherwise -- contain what they actually say they do (and nothing else), your best bet is to choose a product that has been third-party tested by a company such as NSF International and, more specifically, NSF Certified for Sport. This way,  you can have peace of mind that what is on the label is actually in the product.