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Plump, smooth, and firm skin. It’s what gives a person the appearance of a healthy, youthful look.

And collagen is what makes it possible, an essential protein that forms a fibrous network in the dermis layer that gives skin its elasticity and plump appearance, whilst also replacing dead skin cells. Not only that, collagen acts as a building block of the human body and can be found in our muscles, bones, hair, and tendons, accounting for a third of our body’s protein. 

While the human body produces collagen naturally, the ability to do so decreases with age. Factors such as oxidation caused by free radicals affect all oxygen-based organisms, as well as exposure to UV lights. These external causes can damage DNA, which results in the disruption of the body’s homeostasis, including the production of collagen. Even lack of sleep, stress and excessive intake of sugar can contribute to the body’s low production of collagen.

The key to minimizing low collagen production is to have sufficient protein and amino acid intake in your diet. Naturally, some foods have a richer source of collagen than others. While collagen as a protein wasn’t discovered until the 21st century, foods with collagen have always been around. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), they were labeled as detox and beautification food. Many of which are documented in ancient texts and have been consumed for over a thousand years. 

The most famous is Birds Nest, formed by the saliva of Swiftlet birds and was a staple on the royal table of emperors and his household since the 14th century. It is rich in protein, such as the essential amino acids, and sialic acid, the latter of which helps boost the immune system. But if you are looking for vegan options, there are the ‘Birds Nest of the Masses’. They are Peach Resin, Tragacanth Gum, and Snow Fungus, all sources of plant-based collagen.

Snow Fungus, in particular, had been harvested from the wild for over a thousand years. It was popular among royalties before the Empress Dowager Cixi, who loved it so much that her demands started cultivation of it in China. Tragacanth Gums are also of royal pedigree, offered as a tribute to the Burmese royal family by its people also around a thousand years ago. Peach Resin is also included in the 16th-century Chinese medicine book ‘Compendium of Materia Medica’.

Even today, these three collagen-rich ingredients are commonly found in soups or sweet broths (Chinese dessert soup). And Peach Resin has found its popularity amongst the younger crowd in trendy bubble tea shops as an alternative to tapioca pearls. All three TCM ingredients are mild in nature, which are neutral in temperament, but if you have a cold, or spleen and stomach issues, be sure to consult your doctor prior to consumption. 

Peach Resin

Peach Gum

Also known as Peach Gum, Peach Resin is the natural secretion from the bark of the Chinese Wild Peach tree. Golden amber gem-like resins form on the branches which have earned them the name ‘tears of peach blossom’. High in fiber, and rich in protein and amino acids, Peach Resin helps absorb and produce collagen.

It is very popular in traditional nourishing TCM soups, as well as modern-day dessert and bubble tea. In TCM terms, Peach Resin nourishes the yin, reducing excessive internal heat, which can be the cause for acne, constipation, or a sore throat. Although it has no distinct taste, TCM considers it a bitter ingredient that is neutral in temperament, making it suitable to eat with any food. Peach resin is also beneficial for detoxification as it aids the movement of the intestines and helps get rid of toxins.

Peach Resin is most commonly found in sweet broths and is often cooked with nourishing ingredients such as snow fungus, papaya, lotus seeds, jujube red dates, and/or goji berries.

As Peach Resin helps to promote the movement of the digestive organs, it is recommended to avoid excessive consumption. Women who are experiencing menstruation or are pregnant, and anyone with spleen, kidney or digestion issues should also avoid consuming Peach Resin. 

Vegan Birds Nest (Tragacanth Gum) 

Historical records claim that Tragacanth Gum was made from the juices of the Saussurea plant (Snow Lotus). But they are actually the pith (the stem tissues in the bark) secretion of Sterculia trees which are natively found in China, Middle East, India, and Malaysia.

When soaked, Tragacanth Gum forms white strings that resembled Birds Nest in appearance, so it is often referred to as Vegan Birds Nest. It is seen as a worthy competitor to authentic Birds Nest since it is hormone-free and much more affordable in price.

Scientifically, its properties lack the sialic acid present in Birds Nest, which is known to help with cognitive function. However, Tragacanth Gums is still considered a valuable ingredient in TCM. Similar to Peach Resin, it nourishes the body’s yin and lungs, whilst the colloid in Tragacanth Gum (microscopic large particles with a gel-like texture) aids intestinal movements.

If you tend to sleep late, drink alcohol or even smoke regularly, Tragacanth Gum contains a multitude of benefits that help to hydrate the skin, mouth, and throat. In particular, it contains L-fucose sugar which helps regulate the body’s collagen.

Because of its hydrating properties, Tragacanth Gum is best to be avoided by those who have a cold, are suffering from phlegm, bloating, and even spleen and stomach issues. It is also recommended to avoid drinking tea when consuming Vegan Birds Nest, as the acidity of the tea affects the way it is digested.

Vegan Birds Nest can be combined with other foods that help to nourish the body’s yin such as pears, papaya, chicken, longan, and jujube red dates in a soup or sweet broth. Since it is similar to Birds Nest in texture, Tragacanth Gum is often cooked on a low simmer with just rock sugar and water. 

Snow Fungus

Snow Fungus

Although its fronds are often mistaken for their semblance to a flower, Snow fungus is the gelatinous fruiting bodies of a fungus that usually grows in tropical climates on the dead branches of broadleaf trees. Historically, it was only found in the wild, however, cultivation of this ingredient began in order to satisfy the demand of the Empress Dowager Cixi.

For a millenia, Chinese physicians have prescribed Snow Fungus for those with a weak physique, menstrual disorders, and yin deficiency, which usually causes dryness and coughs. Termed by TCM as calm in nature and sweet in taste, Snow Fungus is a versatile ingredient, making it suitable to pair with most ingredients and herbs. 

In addition to enhancing the skin’s ability to produce collagen, Snow Fungus can also help in maintaining a trim physique. It is high in dietary fibre and carotene, keeping one feeling satiated whilst also helping to stimulate the body’s metabolism. However, it is recommended to avoid consuming Snow Fungus if you have a cold or are diabetic. 

Rich in a variety of vitamins that help to hydrate the lungs and promote blood circulation, Snow Fungus can be enjoyed in a sweet broth or soup, with ingredients such as papaya,  ginkgo nuts, dried longans and jujube red dates.

Curious to try out a recipe with one of these collagen-rich ingredients? Stay tuned for recipes coming soon.

By Nam Cheah

School of Chinese Medicine