Firming up: durable demand in the US for collagen-enhanced food

The US market for collagen-enhanced food and beverages has expanded rapidly in recent years. However, how long-lasting might that growth be and what shape could the category take in the years ahead? Dean Best reports.

Collagen, the most abundant protein in the human body, decreases with age – but the interest in how it’s purported to benefit health and beauty is increasing in the US, swelling demand for food and beverages containing the ingredient.

“In 2018, it was really surging in terms of popularity,” Tracey Halama, chief revenue officer at Chicago-based Vital Proteins, a supplier of collagen-enhanced foods and beverages, reflects. “We had triple-digit year-on-year growth of the category, which continued into 2019 and now it's still at high double-digit growth in 2020. Collagen remains a very hot ingredient.”

Data on the sales of all foods and beverages sold in the US that include the ingredient in their recipes is hard to pin down, but Larry Bodner, the chief executive of Seattle’s Bulletproof, a company marketing a range of “high-performance” food, drinks and supplements, says the segment of collagen powder “is over a $1bn in the US alone”.

Powders, bars, and beyond

Industry watchers say US consumer interest in collagen as an ingredient and its purported benefits was sparked by the recent resurgence in the popularity of bone broth. However, a macro trend that shapes much of the packaged-food industry was a key factor in how the category evolved. 

“You can't exactly package bone broth,” nutritionist and entrepreneur Binay Curtis says. “It's [about] convenience, just like with everything. Is it convenient to create bone broth or just provide something powdered in the store? I think it's the latter.”

Collagen powder has been – and remains – the principal product US consumers can buy, adding a couple of scoops to their morning coffee or post-workout shake. However, the way collagen can work with other ingredients has led to the rise of bars as another popular product format, with a raft of protein bars hitting the US market last year.

Collagen remains a very hot ingredient.

“Collagen mixes very well with other proteins, so it can be applied in high-protein solutions and therefore there is a benefit in adding collagen to, for example, a protein bar, which can be used in weight-management solutions but also in sports nutrition,” Lisette van Lith, global director for health and nutrition at Netherlands-headquartered collagen-ingredients supplier Rousselot, explains.

Product development hasn’t stopped at bars, with granola, yogurt, creamers and ice cream among the foods containing collagen launched in recent months in the US.

Ingredient suppliers and packaged-food groups clearly believe in the growth prospects of the category – and that includes some major names too, with Danone launching a yogurt using the ingredient earlier this year and Nestlé moving to buy a majority stake in Vital Proteins this summer.

Balancing the health claims

However, as often happens when the use of an ingredient picks up momentum in packaged foods, there are questions about whether ingesting collagen can really lead to shinier hair, plumper skin or stronger nails.

“Are the claims true? There's certainly scientific evidence I've looked at that leads me to believe that, yes, collagen can be beneficial. It can help our skin. It can help our connective tissues,” Curtis says.

Those operating in the sector vouch for the veracity of the claims they make. “We never state any benefit unless there's extensive scientific research behind it to prove it,” Bulletproof’s Bodner says. “We have a separate group in the company that's about claims substantiation. It's quite real how seriously we take this, so everything is totally backed up by research.” 

Rousselot’s van Lith adds: “We have done our science on all these health benefits, so yes, we have conducted the science and showed efficacy in all of these areas.”

Melissa Abbott, vice president for retainer services at The Hartman Group, says the US research firm’s studies show consumers do feel benefits – but she does add a caveat. “I do think there is a benefit to the inclusion of collagen – but we don't know how effective it is.”

Asked if consumers are saying that they are getting the benefits linked with ingesting collagen, Abbott adds: “Yes, they are. I have not heard them say it in the more processed categories. It's really been more around the bone-broth products. I've heard other consumers say specific supplements have been helpful as well.”

Curtis says she would advise her clients to look for collagen in “real foods first before trying to find it in supplemental products”. However, she adds: “If you're not able to help yourself with real foods then you can take a look at the products out there and research if they’re going to benefit you as well.

“I believe in real food first. If there's a way that people can get it in through real food, then they should try that first. Then, if that is not helping them enough, and maybe the body needs a little bit of a push, then maybe they need the supplements and/or the products that do contain collagen.”

However, her definition of real foods stops short of protein bars. “My definition would be bone broth, chicken, fish, shellfish. That's how I would approach it first. Don't get me wrong, I still do [use] supplements if my body is needing it and/or my clients’ bodies are needing it because it's shown a weakness in one area and so needs that extra push, then I would push it past food. I'll be very careful here: I worry about what else is contained in those bars. I have a hard time finding bars that have ingredients that I would approve.”

What’s the best form of consumption?

Looking at the range of packaged-food products containing collagen in the US begs the question of whether certain foods are better at providing the benefits linked to the ingredient than others. Are the benefits easier to get from a powdered product, say, than from eating a snack bar?

“We have no scientific data to show that at the moment,” Rousselot’s van Lith says. “It is, of course, something of interest. We are conducting studies on, for example, what is the best time to take your collagen? Do you take it with food? Do you take it with coffee, tea [or] water? Right now, there are a lot of opinions out there. I cannot give a conclusive answer to that.”

At Bulletproof, Bodner says the amount of collagen in a bar can be smaller than what a consumer would ingest from a powder, but he points to a wider benefit of eating a bar containing the ingredient.

“In part, you'll get a different quantity. So, sometimes, a snack bar is relatively small. You're going to get some benefit but I think the powder becomes a different approach where you get a more concentrated amount if you put it into a drink,” he explains. “You tend to see the bars provide the collagen in the bar, with some flavour, it's more on-the-go. It's a little bit of a different consumer need than the powders.”

Vital Proteins’ collagen bars. Image: Vital Proteins.

Just as the on-the-go, snack-bar part of the collagen foods category was gaining momentum – Vital Proteins launched its bars in January, for example – along came Covid-19, pulling out the rug from under the feet of these new products as US citizens, like the world over, moved around less. 

“The bar category has been hit by Covid-19 because people aren't grabbing-and-going. They don't have a bar in every gym bag and purse they take when they leave the house,” Morgan Buehler, co-founder and president at US condiments-to-collagen-bar supplier Primal Kitchen (now owned by Kraft Heinz), says. 

More broadly, collagen powders saw a boost from the pantry-loading of the spring, and then the elevated at-home consumption seen in the US since the onset of the pandemic.

 As with many executives across the food industry, those in the collagen category see the virus leading to growing – and long-lasting – interest in the links between diet and health, with the expectation that could boost the market further.

Back to the bar, back to the future

However, as Covid-19 hits the US economy, what impact could that have on demand? At The Hartman Group, Abbott says consumer interest in health and wellness and in convenience-oriented products could support the category, but adds: “Collagen is not necessarily going to go anywhere because it does have these benefits.

"However, it has to be in formats, or at price points, that will be something that the consumer feels like is appropriate for them to incorporate to put in the shopping basket. It's not a fad – but there are fad elements to the way a lot of food companies are leveraging the ingredient.”

Abbott argues, for example, that popcorn is an example of a product that “just doesn't resonate with the consumer”, adding: “It doesn't have a cultural connection of a powdered collagen on a carbohydrate base. There's going to be someone who's going to buy it but the longevity just isn't there.”

What Abbott calls the “customisable space” (putting scoops of powder in beverages) will, she contends, continue to grow. Bars, Abbott adds, will “continue to be very hot”. 

At Vital Proteins, the company is to look again at the bars it launched at the start of 2020. “We need to tweak the offering a little bit,” Halama admits. “What we've realised is they're really great tasting but they don't necessarily age on shelf well, which is the trouble with bars, assuming you're using collagen as a core functional ingredient because by, nature, it is sticky.”

There are fad elements to the way a lot of food companies are leveraging the ingredient.

Halama does seek to underline how having “ready-to-drink and ready-to-eat” products in the Vital Proteins portfolio is “a very important strategy for us”, even with, at present, “90% of our business” in powders.

“We recognise, once we get through this pandemic, that on-the-go mentality is such an ingrained part of who we are as humans. We definitely want to be in the snacking aisle. We just need to work on what that form factor is. I fully anticipate more innovations around snacking to come out within the next 12 months that will resonate with the consumer.”

At Bulletproof, which has recently launched chocolate-covered bars, Bodner is a little coy about the company’s new product development plans. However, he does say the firm will look at product segments “adjacent” to its current areas of collagen protein powder, coffee, supplements, protein bars and medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil. 

“We're not going to go too far afield but we see an opportunity for unmet consumer needs,” he says. “I think if you genericise it: there may be some other categories that don't have products with low sugar, great ingredients and [that] make consumers feel good in a way, and that a lot of these other products in other categories position themselves as better-for-you but they really aren't – I'll let your mind wander from there to what categories that can be.”

Bulletproof’s new chocolate collagen bars. Image: Bulletproof

Surveying the category as a whole, Rousselot’s van Lith suggests the post-Covid-19 demand for on-the-go products will boost beverages and she argues that, in the wake of the pandemic, the recent growth seen in the use of collagen in sports-nutrition products will accelerate. 

“That's going to get an extra boost,” she reflects. “That then ties into an active lifestyle. Basically, I think high-protein solutions, where people want to have an active lifestyle but also want to make sure they're at the right weight – so weight management – for sure that will also have some growth there.”

Dairy is also becoming an emerging area of interest, van Lith says. “It also fits the lifestyle trend: having oatmeal in the morning with milk or yoghurt, and there, collagen also has a natural fit in that food matrix.”

The best guess for the immediate future for the collagen category in the US is demand will continue to rise, given a shot in the arm by growing consumer interest in health and wellness post-Covid-19. Whether products like collagen-enhanced popcorn stick around seems unlikely, with the strongest chances of success in products already considered healthy.

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