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Friday, Jan. 9, 2009

Collagen — skin-deep in myth?


Staff writer

The craze over skin-smoothing collagen has spread to "nabe" hotchpotch, with restaurants serving up the protein-rich fare — usually in the form of pig's knuckles — getting prominent play on TV and in magazines.

News photo
Skin is in: A poster at a Tokyo ramen joint advertises that its noodle dishes are packed with twice the normal amount of collagen. MINORU MATSUTANI PHOTO

Besides eateries serving nabe containing collagen, the high-protein connective tissue found between animal bones, drugstores are also selling the gristle in supplement form.

Health-conscious consumers snap up such products even though nutritionists claim in books and blogs that ingesting collagen is not necessarily the most effective way to erase wrinkles. That is because consumers can be easily deceived and should instead be more skeptical, said Fusako Baba, an honorary professor specializing in consumer psychology at Asia University in Tokyo.

"Consumers are not scientific," Baba said. "Women especially are motivated to be beautiful and thus tend to believe in health-related products."

According to scientists, it is misleading to say ingesting collagen, which can also be found in gelatin, shark fins and the skin of chicken and fish, will result in smoother skin.

That's because collagen is digested into amino acids just like other proteins, and thus eating meat and other protein-rich foods has the same effect, they say.

"Good protein contains sufficient amounts of all kinds of essential amino acids, and most animal protein falls into this category. Collagen is no better than average as a protein," Kuniko Takahashi, a nutrition scientist at Gunma University, writes in her book "Tabemono Joho Uso Honto" ("Truth and Falsehood of Food Information.")

She also says applying collagen cream to skin will not make it any smoother, because collagen is produced inside the body and not absorbed through skin.

Companies that sell collagen products are well aware of this and thus tend not to brag that collagen will leave your skin feeling like silk.

The major convenience store chain FamilyMart Co. began selling collagen nabe at its 7,300 outlets across Japan on Nov. 18. Its sales "are double our initial target, thanks to the media coverage," FamilyMart spokeswoman Akemi Kikuchi said.

Packages of collagen nabe carry no label boasting skin-smoothing or beauty effects, because under the Pharmaceutical Law, products that are not medical drugs must not state that they have medicinal effects, Kikuchi said.

The company also never boasted in ads or otherwise that collagen nabe is good for the skin, she said.

The nabe contains chicken, which has collagen, and vegetables. It also has collagen gel that melts into the soup when heated.

A Tokyo-based nabe restaurant chain, whose spokeswoman asked that her company not be named, opened the first collagen nabe restaurant in Meguro Ward in June 2006, and now has two more in the capital.

Business is brisk because of the many young female patrons, the spokeswoman said.

"Nabe is food for many people to eat together, so it's fun. It's also tasty. But customers want something extra, and that, I think, is collagen," she said, adding that collagen is not scientifically proven effective for smoothening skin and her company never claimed it is.

"Customers can take well-balanced nutrition by eating food containing collagen and vegetables together," she said.

On collagen nabe's popularity, consumer psychologist Baba said nabe culturally is considered a traditional Japanese food.

DHC Corp., which sells collagen lotion and supplements among other health products, said collagen products have proved popular for a long time.

Asked why eating collagen is healthy, DHC spokeswoman Nozomi Itoi said: "Collagen is a kind of protein that forms bones, skin and many other tissues. It especially forms large parts of inner skin."

She added: "Studies imply that eating or drinking collagen improves bone metabolism and is good for people suffering joint inflammation and osteoporosis. Also it was reported in a preliminary experiment that eating or drinking collagen helps the skin stay moist."

Itoi did not go so far as to say ingesting collagen is more effective than other types of protein.

Collagen accounts for a third of protein forming animal bodies, so it is correct to say it is a very necessary protein, nutrition scientist Takahashi said in her book. Also, it accounts for 70 percent of the weight of inner skin when it is completely dehydrated, she added.

Even though Takahashi's information is readily accessible, the overwhelming media pitch on the merits of popular collagen nabe restaurants and TV programs stoking the desire of women to look good make collagen products an easy sell, Baba said.

"Companies are smart and do not promote their (collagen) products in an outright lie. But consumers cannot be scientifically discerning, no matter how hard they try," she said.



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