Buying a protein powder used to be easy. That was when your options were limited to whey and soy and not much else.
Now, you have multiple types of whey, endless plant variations, casein, and collagen protein. Each seemingly has its own benefits and limitations, which leaves you with one simple question: if you can only take one protein, which is best?
Many supplements now promote using collagen protein. While collagen is good, it has a significant flaw: if you only take collagen protein, you might not see all of its intended benefits.
Is Collagen Better Than Whey?
Collagen is a protein that helps make the connective tissues in your body. It's important to your skin, hair, joints, bones, muscles, veins, and organs.
Your body produces collagen naturally, but, as you age, your body starts to produce less.
Collagen provides higher amounts of three very important amino acids: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. When you take collagen, those amino acids help with your collagen supply, which can help strengthen the structure of your tissue.
But, here’s the big problem: collagen is not a complete protein. In other words, simply taking a protein that's higher in three amino acids alone does not mean your body can put them to use. There are nine essential amino acids. Your body needs all of these amino acids present in order to trigger protein synthesis, which is the process where your body can put the different amino acids to use.
In other words, if you stock up on collagen protein, but don’t have enough of the other amino acids — and specifically the essential amino acids — then the benefits of collagen protein are extremely limited.
Is it unfair? Sure. But, it’s also how your body works.
And that’s just part of the problem. Collagen protein has one of the lowest digestibility scores — it ranks “0” on a 1-point scale because it doesn’t have any tryptophan (and it’s just .39 on a 1-point scale when you add tryptophan to collagen).
Also, the type of collagen sold in most products — called hydrolyzed collagen — has a fundamental absorption flaw. Research has shown that the enzymes in your stomach break down collagen protein and make it unusable for collagen production unless you have a very specific type of collagen protein called type-II collagen (oftentimes labeled as UC-II collagen).
Does this mean you should avoid all collagen? No, but it does mean that only taken collagen won’t provide the benefits you desire.
Benefits of Whey Protein
At a minimum, you want to make sure you eat enough complete protein, which has all the amino acids you need for protein synthesis. Complete proteins include foods like meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy. If you follow a plant-based diet, pea protein isolate and soy protein are also complete proteins.
This is why whey- or milk-based protein powder was the gold standard base because it provides all of the amino acids your body needs. You can also get take a pea-based plant protein. When you have all of the amino acids, your body can then allocate them as needed.
Mixing Collagen and Whey Protein: Is it a Good Idea?
If you are providing your body with all of the amino acids, you might see added benefits by added collagen. You can add collagen protein to whey (or a complete plant protein) or focused on foods that include the amino acids in collagen, and then you'll experience all of the benefits.
If you're looking for natural sources of collagen, here’s your checklist:
- For glycine: meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and legumes (for the amino acid glycine)
- For proline: bone broth, organ meats (like liver), fish, egg yolks, poultry
- For hydroxyproline (to spark synthesis): green vegetables and peppers, citrus fruits, bananas, and melons.
Once you have enough amino acids from your diet (or protein powders), then your body will take care of the rest.
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.