Whey has been used by athletes for decades for protein replenishment, muscle building, and overall recovery. It’s the tried and true protein supplement in the fitness industry, while collagen is like the new kid on the block. Is collagen a fad, or is it real and evidence-based? Does it have benefits for athletes and bodybuilders? Or is it mostly for pretty hair and skin?
Today we’re going to dive into the facts on both supplements to help you find out which one is right for you.
What Is Collagen Protein?
Collagen is a fibrous, structural protein that is found abundantly in humans and all mammals. The word “collagen” is derived from the Greek word for glue. It was so named for its ability to turn to soluble gelatin when heated in water.
Collagen is an important building block in bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscle. It plays a big role in the health of your hair, skin, and nails. As with all protein structures, collagen is built from amino acids. Collagen contains 19 amino acids and 8 essential amino acids. The main aminos that make up collagen are glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and arginine.
Glycine is a nonessential amino acid that is considered the “most important and simple, nonessential amino acid in humans…” and has been found effective in improving the health and strength of both humans and animals.
Arginine is a semi-essential amino acid. This means that although it is produced and synthesized by the body, sometimes more is needed from the diet (especially when the body is under regular stress, such as athletics and bodybuilding). For this reason, it is a common supplement seen among fitness professionals. Arginine is the substrate for nitric oxide, which is essential for getting good blood flow to active muscles and regulating blood pressure. It also plays a role in wound and injury healing.
Proline and Hydroxyproline, out of all the amino acids, are the most essential for whole-body protein synthesis. This means that in order for your body to properly use protein for muscle building and recovery, proline must be present. Proline also plays a major role in effective wound and injury healing. Proline is considered a semi-essential amino acid.
Together, these 3 amino-acids plus 8 essential amino acids and 7 other non-essential amino acids build the complex triple-helical structure of collagen protein. In total, a collagen molecule contains an average of 1000 of these aminos.
In the human body, collagen molecules make up:
- 30 percent of all protein in the human body
- 65-80 percent of the proteins in a ligament
- 70 percent of the proteins in a tendon
- 60 percent of the proteins in bones
Collagen protein supplements are derived from animal collagen. Yes, that does mean that there are NO vegan collagen options. And most companies source their collagen from the hides and connective tissues of cows. These contain copious amounts of high-quality collagen and also support sustainable farming practices by ensuring farmers can use all of the cow.
What Is Whey Protein?
Whey is one of the two main proteins found in milk (the other being casein). When cheese is made, milk fat coagulates and leaves behind whey. Similarly, when you open a tub of yogurt, the watery film at the top is whey. Cheese producers use to discard this after making cheese until it was discovered that whey is a valuable source of protein and nutrition.
Whey is popular in part because it contains 20 amino acids, and all 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein source.
Essential amino acids can’t be made by the body and must be obtained from the diet. The essential amino acids include:
- Histidine: protects the nervous system, aids in the immune response, improves digestion and sexual function, and plays a role in the sleep-wake cycle.
- Isoleucine: highly concentrated in muscle tissue, aids energy production, boosts immune function.
- Leucine: vital for protein synthesis and rebuilding muscles, plays a role in wound healing.
- Lysine: aids the absorption of calcium, supports the production of collagen, important in protein synthesis.
- Methionine: helps the body to absorb minerals such as zinc and selenium, improves metabolism and detoxification.
- Phenylalanine: a precursor for neurotransmitters, aids in the production of other amino acids.
- Threonine: improves fat metabolism, supports immune system function, strengthens connective tissue.
- Tryptophan: important for regulating mood, sleep, and appetite.
- Valine: stimulates muscle regeneration and growth, helps the body to create energy.
Whey is also low in fat and lactose, making it good for those monitoring their fat intake or those sensitive to regular dairy products.
As stated above, whey protein comes from milk. More specifically, it is a byproduct of the cheese-making process. After the cheese is made, the remaining watery liquid is filtered to remove facts and lactose, leaving on whey concentrate behind. This liquid whey is spray-dried with hot and cold air until it becomes a powder. This powder is then packaged by various supplement companies and sometimes formulated with other ingredients (i.e. flavor).
How Do Collagen and Whey Compare?
Let’s dive into the research surrounding whey protein and collagen protein and see how they compare. From a non-biased perspective, this is how the two protein’s stack up:
While it’s often touted that whey protein is absorbed quickly and easily, research has actually proven that it takes the body about 1.5 hours to digest viscous liquids (such as whey protein shakes). Not only that, but the body can only digest 8-10 grams of whey protein per hour.
This means potentially half of your protein shake is not even being absorbed.
However, you CAN boost the whey absorption rate by adding digestive ENZYMES. Research has found that consuming whey protein along with certain enzymes can increase amino acid absorption by 127%. So better absorption may be as simple as adding a digestive enzyme supplement.
Hydrolyzed collagen is already broken down and “pre-digested” so that when it enters the body, it can be easily absorbed and utilized.
Research has found that the hydrolysis of collagen was associated with an enhanced absorption rate of collagen’s main amino acids (proline, hydroxyproline, and glycine) 20 minutes post-ingestion. A more detailed look into how collagen is digested and utilized in the body can be found here.
Winner: if whey is not taken with digestive enzymes, hydrolyzed collagen definitely wins at faster and more efficient absorption. However, with the addition of digestive enzymes, whey protein may tie with collagen.
Both whey and collagen assist the body with building muscle after strength training, but whey seems to stimulate higher rates of protein synthesis. This may be due to whey’s high concentration of leucine.
Collagen, however, helps to maintain a positive nitrogen balance in the body (anabolic) better than whey. Nitrogen balance refers to the measure of nitrogen output/input. If one is in a negative nitrogen balance, this indicates that the body is malnourished and/or has been pushed into catabolic processes over anabolic. This is generally due to poor nutrition/protein intake and is exasperated by overtraining.
Collagen also strengthens the extracellular matrix of the muscle cells, allowing for more load to be distributed with more force without adding large size.
Studies have found collagen to improve body composition by increasing fat-free mass, decreasing fat-mass, and increasing muscle strength. It’s benefits have been studied mostly in older adults and the elderly.
Injury Recovery and Pain Relief
Due to its high glycine content, collagen seems to have powerful anti-inflammatory effects on injuries. Several studies have found that hydrolyzed collagen reduces both inflammation and pain, and speeds up the healing process in conditions such as exercise-induced joint pain, osteoarthritis, and tendonitis/ Achilles tendinopathy.
Research has found that whey protein does not seem to have favorable effects on circulating inflammatory markers. Whey protein actually seems to enhance the inflammatory response during wound healing by restoring levels of oxidative stress and inflammatory cytokines.
Preliminary research has found that consuming hydrolyzed collagen (a major structural protein) increases bone mass during growth periods. Studies have found that supplementation of hydrolyzed collagen may also help to prevent age-related bone loss, increase bone formation, and reduce bone degradation.
While supplementation of whey protein does not adversely affect skeletal health, it doesn’t seem to improve it, either.
Amino Acid Profile
The main differences between the amino acid profiles of whey and collagen are that whey contains all 9 essential amino acids, while collagen only has 8. Whey also contains more BCAA’s (branch-chain amino acids) which are key in recovery and muscle synthesis.
Collagen supplements may easily be made into a complete protein by simply adding the missing essential amino acid, which is what we do with our Frog Fuel products.
Collagen contains three amino acids that are generally lacking in whey and plant-based proteins, and are also not found in typical meat products. Collagen is a fibrous protein found in the skin, cartilage, and bones of animals whereas whey comes from milk.
Collagen Protein vs Whey for Bodybuilding
Combined with a healthy diet, both whey protein and hydrolyzed collagen seem to have promising benefits for bodybuilders. While whey protein may support faster muscle growth than collagen, both improve muscle growth and recovery. Collagen seems to be more effective than whey when it comes to injury recovery and the rebuilding of connective tissues and structures in the body.
The trick with collagen is that it is not as easily obtained from a modern diet as proteins found in whey. You can easily find all essential amino acids in animal products such as lean meats, fish, and dairy. Collagen, however, is mostly found in the skin, connective tissues, and bones of animals. Historically, it was common for people to use the entire animal and consume plenty of collagen. But modern convenience has slowly eradicated those dietary trends, and not many of us are eating these parts of the animal anymore.
For this reason, collagen supplementation may be very beneficial to bodybuilders and athletes in general.
Why Collagen Supplements Are Important For Adults
Did you know the body’s natural production of collagen protein begins to slow in your 20’s? According to research surrounding collagen production, a person produces about 1% less collagen every year after the age of 20. This is why collagen has been extensively studied for its potential anti-aging properties for the skin, hair, and joints.
Where To Buy Collagen Protein
It is important to seek out high-quality hydrolyzed collagen when looking for a good supplement. Frog Fuel Power contains GMO-free enzyme hydrolyzed collagen protein for maximum absorption and utilization. We’ve added in extra amino acids to ensure it is a complete protein source, providing a total of 22 amino acids. Each serving is only 60 calories and is lactose, sugar, fat, and gluten-free.
What questions do you have about collagen vs whey? Please leave your comments and questions below. We love to hear from you and appreciate knowing what you would like to have addressed in future content.