The broken-down amino acids of cattle—pulverized into a chalky white, fluffy powder—are beloved by athletes and beauty bloggers for their supposed skin-boosting and joint health benefits. The ingredient spawned a host of new food and beverage startups touting snack bars, gummy candy, and coffee creamers. Even Silicon Valley is in on the trend, with VCs pouring in over $100 million to fund a single bone broth company.
The global collagen market was valued at $4 billion just three years ago. Now, it’s expected to grow to $6.5 billion by 2025.
One brand cornered—and some say started—this gold rush. Vital Proteins, known for its bulky blue tubs of collagen peptides, is found in 20,000 stores. The product occupies prime shelf space at grocers like Whole Foods and Costco, as well as retailers like Target and Urban Outfitters. In Sephora stores, travel-size versions beckon customers from the checkout area alongside lip glosses and skin masks.
It’s even seeped into the hospitality space: At L.A.’s upscale natural health market Erewhon, baristas brew coffee with a shot of Vital Proteins. And pretty soon, it will be available on JetBlue flights. (That’ll likely appeal to Jennifer Aniston, who says she depends on the brand for her morning routine.) You can also pick it up at WeWork or Drybar.
Basically, it’s everywhere.
“I’ve heard people say that we made protein cool,” says Vital Proteins founder and CEO Kurt Seidensticker.
An unexpected customer
Our bodies naturally produce collagen, a structural protein found in the connective tissue—hair, skin, muscles, bones, etc. But as we age, we produce less of it. That leads to achy joints and weakened muscles, along with less lustrous-looking hair or dull skin. To ensure more collagen, one can eat protein-heavy foods like beef, fish, or poultry.
But one idea gaining widespread traction is that we can boost collagen by consuming large amounts of it in supplement format. (It’s not meant to be a complete nutritional replacement.) Vital Proteins collagen peptides, for example, come “from grass-fed, pasture-raised” bovine hides in Brazil. The company’s marine collagen product is sourced “from wild-caught, non-GMO Red Snapper off the coast of Hawaii.”
Seidensticker, 54, launched the company after noticing it took longer to recover from runs as he aged. A former NASA aerospace engineer, he began investigating ways to quicken joint recovery when he stumbled upon a German research study that suggested athletes who consumed 40-70 grams of collagen experienced a reduction in injuries and joint deterioration. (There have been similar studies since.)
The findings showed promising results for the average consumer, with one catch: One would need to consume roughly 80 supplement pills to witness effects. Basically, the most efficient delivery method is via powder.
In 2012, Seidensticker launched Chicago-based Vital Proteins. The direct-to-consumer company advertised a “clean,” simple, and allergen-free collagen that was both easily soluble and flavorless. That means no fishy aftertaste or funky smell, lending itself to anything you might want to add it to. Each 20 oz. tub ($43) advocated consuming 20g of protein powder per day, the minimum to see visible results.
This was around the time when the Paleo diet and nondairy nutrition models gained traction, so Seidensticker targeted the fitness community by making the rounds at health expos.
In those first two years, recalls Seidensticker, Vital Proteins focused on educating the consumer about the benefits of collagen. It differed from whey protein or plant protein in that it’s a functional protein, meaning it could seamlessly integrate into one’s lifestyle. It pledged a host of additional benefits beyond joint repair, like more “vibrant” skin or better digestion.