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Collagen supplements have long taken centre stage in Japanese beauty regimes. Now Australians wanting smoother skin, softer hair, stronger nails and even reduced joint pain are taking notice.

Collagen is a vital structural protein found in the connective tissue of animals, which supports cells, tissues and bones. It comprises amino acids wound together to form elongated fibrils and is predominantly in fibrous tissues such as tendons, ligaments, and skin. Our body’s natural production of collagen slows during our 20s and eventually stops, resulting in wrinkles, brittle nails, sunspots, and dry hair.

Throughout history people have sought to increase their collagen intake through diet; often eating foods most Aussies would baulk at today. Chicken feet, pigs trotters, organ and tissue meats, aspics made from the gelatinous parts of animals and even whale blubber have formed part of traditional diets rich in collagen.

Getting back into the kitchen, learning about the nutrients in ingredients and diversifying protein consumption beyond muscle meats is one way to increase collagen intake. Taking supplements of collagen derived from marine animals and grass-fed beef also offers a convenient way to boost levels when the body’s own production slows down.

Marine collagen is rich in amino acids and contains at least 90 percent protein and 8 percent hydroxyproline, which is responsible for collagen stability. It has been found to have a range of functional and biological properties including antioxidant, blood pressure regulation and skin anti-ageing activity. It may also help stabilise and strengthen joints by preventing collagen breakdown. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found that taking oral collagen supplements could improve the skin’s hydration and reduce signs of ageing. Researchers have also found it to be beneficial to bone metabolism in both animal and human studies.

Some nutrition experts question the value of collagen supplements, saying it is unlikely the collagen could survive the digestion process. One way of improving bioavailability may be to take hydrolysed collagen, a form of gelatin derived from grass-fed beef. Hydrolysed collagen products are designed for rapid absorption into the bloodstream, with the higher concentration of amino acids claimed to enable it to pass through cell walls quickly. When hydrolysed, collagen is reduced to small peptides weighing less than pure collagen or gelatin, with studies suggesting more than 90 percent of hydrolysed collagen is digested and available in the bloodstream within a few hours. The peptides are then transported to target tissues to act as building blocks for cells and to help boost production of new collagen. Clinical studies have suggested hydrolysed collagen accumulates in the cartilage, an effect that has been shown to reduce severe joint pain.

The next phase in collagen research is around pinpointing genes that enable the rapid stiffening or softening of collagen in marine animals, which could shed new light on ways to keep skin looking young and healthy. In the meantime, collagen supplements offer a useful nutritional support for those lacking a taste for chicken feet and fish heads.