Going for Green: Challenges and opportunities for plant-based supplements

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 25 No. 8
Volume 25
Issue 8

The supplements industry is focused on plant-based solutions to meet growing demand.

Photo © AdobeStock.com/toeytoey

Photo © AdobeStock.com/toeytoey

Although there are always rumors that legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan is a vegan—or, at the very least, a vegetarian—the International Vegetarian Union says there’s no evidence of this to be found.1 No doubt the assumption was made due to the back-in-the-day stereotypical profile of vegans and vegetarians as being counterculture, hippy-dippy, crunchy-granola types.

Well, the times they are a-changin.’

Today, according to BeVeg2, the world’s leading vegan-certification company, the face of veganism is in fact represented by musicians, actors, athletes, and other influencers the world over, including Beyonce, Carrie Underwood, Natalie Portman, Serena Williams, and Tom Brady, to name a few. Heck, Vogue, the trendsetting bible for fashionistas, named “vegan” a top wedding trend in 2017.3

The global market for vegan cosmetics is projected to reach $20.8 billion by 2025, driven by millennials. And, according to Allied Market Research, the vegan food market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 10.5% between 2019 and 2026, reaching $31.4 billion at the end of the period.3

One might rightly say that veganism is a movement.

State of the Green Market

The potential impact of consumer demand for plant-based products and vegan philosophies that extend beyond a commitment to non-animal food products is not lost on dietary supplement suppliers. Nor is the opportunity for industry growth.

Michael Baumann, PhD, global strategic marketing manager for dietary supplements at IFF (New York City), cites research predicting that the global plant-based supplements market is expected to grow at a 10.9% CAGR in 2020-2028, citing the market’s value back in 2020 already at over $17 billion.4

Baumann advises that projected growth is further reflected by “Mintel GNPD data that shows that the number of new supplements with vegetarian and vegan claims grew at a CAGR of 14% and 28%, respectively, between 2017 and 2021.”

Other companies, too, are reading the financial tea leaves.

“Demand for plant-based supplements has grown significantly in recent years,” says Lindsey Toth, director of global marketing for Lonza Capsules & Health Ingredients (Basel, Switzerland). “In fact, 45% of supplement users state that ‘plant-based’ is an important factor in their decision to purchase dietary supplements, while ‘vegan/vegetarian/no-animal-product’ claims are important to 40% of consumers."5

Toth believes that “this has, in turn, propelled ongoing market growth and driven the need for continuous innovation to ensure producers can stand out in this competitive and dynamic space.”

Drilling down specifically to the vegetarian softgel capsule market, Steve Amoussou-Guenou, global technical developer at Roquette (Geneva, IL), shares that the market was valued at more than $500 million globally in 2020 and is projected to reach $800 million+ by 2030, at a CAGR of 4.6%.

Growth Drivers

Industry leaders say there are numerous reasons for the growth in vegan and vegetarian consumers. For example, Amoussou-Guenou says, “The increase in the vegetarian and vegan population is strongly fueling this growth as consumers demand more animal-free products” based on “a combination of religious, ethical, environmental, and health reasons.”

But vegans and vegetarians aren’t the only drivers of plant-based category growth. For instance, companies understand that while a vital impetus for category growth may come down to vegans and vegetarians, the push for these products is not just the purview of those who exclusively choose non-animal-based products in their diet. The reasons for choosing a plant-based product are varied.

“The move away from animal products to plant-based alternatives initially came from the food industry,” advises Amoussou-Guenou, “but it has been taking hold of the health supplements market for some time. Although largely driven by health and lifestyle choices, it’s not movements like vegan or vegetarianism that determine demand for plant-based alternatives.” He notes that because softgel products, for instance, are derived from the bones and skin of pigs and cows, some individuals cannot consume traditional dietary supplements for religious reasons.

“At the same time,” he adds, “increased consumer awareness of environmental and health concerns regarding meat consumption is fueling the global drive toward plant-based solutions, too—with extraordinary growth in the capsule market especially.”

According to Mark Gardella, RPh, vice president of product development at Catalent (Somerset, NJ), “The appeal of vegan and vegetarian products extends well beyond consumers who choose a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle or have religious beliefs or cultural norms that prohibit certain or all animal-based products.”

Gardella believes that “the growth of the ‘flexitarian,’ or someone who includes plant-based solutions in their life but does not live an exclusively plant-based lifestyle, has helped drive the growth in interest across consumer product categories.”

IFF’s Baumann agrees, and he’s got the data to support it. He points to research that advises that while vegans and vegetarians represent a small group of global consumers—4% and 6.4%, respectively—there are other factors driving the demand for plant-based delivery systems.6 Says Baumann, other research shows that “experts indicated that the group that is driving this demand are the flexitarians, which account for 42% of global consumers.”7

“At IFF,” he says, “we perceive this to be due to rising trends around sustainability as well as the fact that vegan supplements tend to be perceived as safer and healthier.”4

Gardella has likely seen the same research as he concurs that “many people perceive vegan and vegetarian credentials as signals of safety, of products from more natural origins, and as aligning more with their personal view of what is important in their health and wellness choices.”

And Laurentia Guesman, business manager for supplement and food ingredients at AIDP Inc. (City of Industry, CA), notes that AIDP’s broad portfolio of plant-based proteins and botanicals has been trending for several years. She, too, agrees with her colleagues about the reasons why plant-based alternatives “have become so popular.” She attributes their rise to the need for options for consumers practicing vegan and vegetarian lifestyles “due to the ecological impacts of consuming meat and/or to promote the more ethical treatment of animals,” she says.

“Consumers are also replacing some of their dietary intake of animal-based products with plant-based alternatives for the health benefits associated with a more varied diet,” Guesman adds. “Finally, some consumers perceive plant-based alternatives to be ‘healthier’ than animal-based products.”

Like IFF’s Baumann, Roquette’s Amoussou-Guenou agrees that the sustainability trend is particularly pronounced. “Consumers are increasingly taking active steps to behave in a more sustainable manner, including reducing their meat consumption in any way possible, realizing that their individual actions can help to limit the damage to our planet,” he says.

Baumann bottom-lines it like this: “Overall, the market for plant-based supplements is rapidly growing, and we expect that consumer demand will continue to dictate innovation.”

Speaking of Innovation...

Innovation is often thought to be sparked by creativity. But it doesn’t always exist in a vacuum. In the case of business, more often than not innovation is the love child of partnering identified business challenges with viable solutions.

Baumann explains that “as trends around plant-based ingredients spill over from grocery shelves to supplement aisles, the nutritional ingredient industry has been challenged to deliver plant-based solutions, leading to more successful production of vegan and vegetarian supplements.”

From a historical perspective, he shares that “when formulators were first interested in vegetarian and vegan supplements, formulation technologies were perceived to be, or even were, disadvantageous in terms of overall cost, quality, and sufficient and consistent functionality.”

Solving a Problem, Growing the Category

On top of that, he adds that formulators had a limited range of options to meet their product and processing needs. Gelatin, for example, set a high standard for quality, process efficiency, and versatility for softgel capsules and gummy supplements, he says.

But gelatin is not an option for vegans and vegetarians. So, the innovators went to work.

“Through research and expertise, formulators today can now select from a broad range of non-gelatin alternatives such as starch, seaweed extracts, pectin, and gellan gum,” says Baumann.

“In fact,” he claims, “formulators have found that with the right combination of plant-based non-dietary ingredients, manufacturers can produce softgels or gummies of a quality and efficiency that matches that of gelatin.” Baumann points to IFF’s SeaGel as a leading plant-based softgel technology used by many brands globally for non-gelatin soft capsules containing a wide range of different nutrients such as algae oil, CoQ10, vitamins, and lutein.

Roquette’s Amoussou-Guenou, too, agrees that “plant-based ingredients can be difficult to deliver, especially in softgel formulas due to complex development and formulation challenges.” He says the most prominent challenges in formulating plant-based softgels are “perceived cost, seal strength, encapsulation speed, and consistent capsule performance from batch-to-batch.”

Like his competitors, Amoussou-Guenou says that “as a leader in plant-based ingredients, Roquette is well positioned to take on these challenges.” Less than two years ago, Roquette announced the launch of Lycagel, its market-first pea starch technology offering a pharmaceutical-grade solution for vegetarian softgel capsule formulations.8 He explains that Lycagel is a 100%-plant-based delivery solution for softgel innovation that helps manufacturers meet consumer demand for plant-origin options, without compromising on performance or quality.

Catalent, too, says it is up for the softgel vegan/vegetarian delivery challenge and has solutions of its own. In its branded line of Vegicaps capsules, “Catalent uses a plant-based softgel derived from a special grade of sustainably sourced seaweed,” says Gardella.

The raw material source of the shell is just one factor that can have an impact on the success of plant-based products. Gardella says that “several important decisions need to be made at the onset of developing a product that will appeal to consumers interested in plant-based solutions. A critical one is whether the final product will be submitted for vegan certification—or, alternatively, whether carrying ‘vegetarian’ claims will be sufficient.”

That decision, he says, will affect raw material choices for both active and inactive ingredients within the formulation itself, as well as the delivery format.

Gardella advises that Catalent’s Vegicaps plant-based softgel technology has been established in the market for more than 15 years as a delivery method for products aimed at achieving vegan certification and for those carrying vegetarian claims. In June 2020, according to a press release, Catalent announced completion of a $3.2 million expansion program at its consumer health manufacturing facilities in Strathroy, Canada, and Sorocaba, Brazil. The expansion projects included new softgel encapsulation lines at both sites, dedicated in part to Catalent’s proprietary Vegicaps plant-based capsule technology to support its customers seeking to develop all-natural, plant-based vitamins, minerals, and supplements for consumers.9

Challenges Accepted, Solutions Discovered

Lonza’s Toth joins her colleagues in noting that “creating solutions with vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based positionings can be a challenge—because it is not just the ingredient to consider; it is the delivery system, too.” She focuses on the importance of clean-label ingredients, explaining that “they are often more difficult to work with, which may mean that producers must invest in new equipment and adapt their processes to accommodate.”

“What is more,” she says, “adding color—often an important differentiator for supplement brands—without compromising on the product’s vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based positioning has historically been complex.”

Toth says that dosage form technologies have evolved and diversified to solve these formulation challenges. As an example, she references Lonza’s Capsugel Vcaps Plus capsules which she notes are created using a hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC) polymer to deliver on plant-based supplement needs while also offering added protection for moisture-sensitive ingredients. These vegetarian capsules are now available in a full palette of TiO2-free colors, tinted using colors derived from food sources so that supplement producers can deliver a variety of trend-driven, high-performance plant-based solutions.

And while vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based claims are important to today’s savvy consumers, says Toth, ultimately consumers want to feel confident that what they are putting in their body is safe. She points to research that demonstrates that ‘safety’ topped consumers’ list of important factors to consider when making the decision to buy supplement products. Therefore, Toth suggests that “plant-based supplements featuring easy-to-understand, recognizable ingredients are appealing to more than just those leading vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based lifestyles.”5

Vitamin D Benefits for Vegetarians and Vegans

According to AIDP’s Guesman, the biggest challenges for delivering plant-based solutions for supplements are generally bioavailability, stability, and price. She says that plant-based supplements may require a unique manufacturing process, which often comes at a higher cost. “AIDP evaluates all three of these parameters before electing to introduce the product,” she explains.

In 2021, the bioavailability issue for AIDP’s VegD3, a vegan, organic form of vitamin D3, benefitted from a new study that, according to a company press release, “confirmed that VegD3 is a bioavailable source of vitamin D3, supporting the existing analytical data.”10

Healthy volunteers were supplemented with a daily dose of 600 IU of VegD3, and vitamin D plasma levels were evaluated at baseline and at seven days. The results were statistically significant, with participants seeing an average increase of 33 nmol/L (13.45 ng/ml), approximately 77.3% above baseline. Those who were vitamin D deficient at baseline increased to vitamin D plasma level sufficiency at the end of the seven-day test period.10 The study has not been published as of yet.

Vitamin D is an in-demand supplement, and “most consumers are unaware that vitamin D3 is animal-based,” says Guesman. For AIDP, the impetus to develop a vitamin D3 product for vegans came about when “an inventor was looking for a vegan alternative to vitamin D3 for his wife who practices strict veganism,” she says. When the inventor’s wife discovered she was deficient in the vitamin, she was surprised to learn that the D3 supplements on the market were not vegan. Her husband’s quest to help his wife drove him to innovate VegD3, Guesman explains.

She further advises that “VegD3 has had a strong market response as consumers are looking for more non-animal alternatives.” VegD3 is available in both a powder and oil format, according to Guesman, “making it ideal for capsule, softgel, gummy, beverage, and other novel products.”

Pectin Produces Progress

Given the growing popularity of gummies, it’s no surprise that vegans and vegetarians also want in on that action.

Last year, Catalent acquired Bettera Brands (Plano, TX), a leading gummies manufacturer.11 Catalent’s Gardella says that “Pectin-based gummies are becoming a dominant delivery form for plant-based supplements. For our plant-based gummies, the pectin is derived from citrus sources.” In addition to being 100%-plant-based pectin formulations, the gummies are certified Kosher and Halal; organic available; produced in NSF-certified facilities; and free of eight major allergens, according to the company’s website.

Meanwhile, “At IFF,” says Baumann, “we have noticed that consumers seeking products that are convenient, offer high indulgence value, and can make a difference in their health drive the dietary supplement gummy market.”

He, too, says that “pectin is on the road to success for gummies, as it’s becoming the preferred gelling agent due to its desired properties and excellent consumer perception. Pectin can be blended with other hydrocolloids, allowing for tailored sensory properties such as superior flavor release and enhanced product stability.”

He explains that when working with pectin, the gelling process—and thus the final gummy properties, like texture—are impacted by the type of pectin used, pH, total solid content, and other ingredients like minerals and vitamins. He adds that partnering with the right pectin suppliers can help brand owners easily identify the best pectin solution for their specific formulation needs.

At IFF, Baumann says the company’s Grindsted Pectin PRM is produced from a sustainable source of citrus peel byproducts and is an ideal solution for those looking to transition from traditional gelatin-based gummies to plant-based gummies.

Certifications to Increase Credibility, Confidence

Jen Berkebile, technical scheme lead, food product claims, for the global food division of NSF International (Ann Arbor, MI), a leading global provider of food safety and quality solutions, calls veganism a “conscious choice” that “drives the importance of reliable information, authenticity, and transparency among brands.” She is concerned that as the vegan market continues to grow, “it is becoming cluttered with empty marks and unsubstantiated claims.”

“Currently,” she adds, “no country has a uniform definition or regulation on what vegan means or stands for.”

Earlier this year, NSF took a step toward decluttering that environment by partnering with BeVeg to launch a new vegan certification program for manufacturers, brands, and retailers in the areas of food and beverage, dietary supplements, and personal care products.12

As Berkebile explains, “BeVeg is a process and a product quality–assurance program that holds both vegan-certified facilities and products accountable. BeVeg is independently ISO 17065 accredited, and the BeVeg Vegan certification program operates in accordance with an ISO 17067–recognized product certification program.”

“Both deliver an extra level of assurance,” she adds.

“In partnering with NSF, BeVeg further expands our reach to consumers and retail chains worldwide by instilling confidence and accountability through the legal credibility our standard is backed by,” said Carissa Kranz, Esq., founder and CEO of BeVeg.12 NSF says the BeVeg Vegan standard “is recognized globally for providing trust and transparency to consumers.”12

NSF offers opportunities to bundle the BeVeg certification with other NSF certifications for dietary supplements, such as for GMPs and product and ingredient certifications. “We anticipate consumers to hold brands more accountable for their claims when it comes to vegan products in the future,” Berkebile adds.

Potential Roadblocks to Continued Growth

Although the ground for growth is fertile now, companies have their eye on potential spoilers ahead. Global concerns like supply chain issues, worldwide inflation, and environmental hazards could disrupt business. Fortunately, companies are already looking at—and pitching—solutions.

“Manufacturers seeking to produce plant-based products may experience difficulties in finding reliable suppliers that can provide ingredients and raw materials at a large scale, partly explaining why new plant-based products usually come with a higher price tag,” says Roquette’s Amoussou-Guenou. “For instance,” he adds that “just like animals are susceptible to disease, so too are plants—not to mention adverse weather conditions and environmental changes. This can ultimately impact yield and therefore supply chain reliability.”

He says that working with a vertically integrated company with a global footprint can help to mitigate such risk. “If crop is affected in one geographical area, for example, we’re still able to fulfill our customers’ needs since we can source materials from elsewhere in the world,” he explains.

Catalent’s Gardella has some macro concerns, too. He says things like inflation, supply chain pressures, or environmental considerations are affecting everyone at various stages of a product’s value chain.

But he also sees “an opportunity for plant-based softgels to provide a cost-effective solution by controlling pass-through costs that may otherwise be introduced through the in-licensing of plant-based technologies.” Catalent developed the technology over 15 years ago, he says, “so there are no additional costs of licensing within our product costs. This level of internal control ultimately enables a plant-based product to be marketed at a similar price range to the more-conventional solutions based on other materials, if that’s right for the brand.”

Gardella views these as “important considerations at a time when consumers are seeing less disposable income and would like to prioritize products that align with their values, without paying a significant cost premium.”

IFF’s Baumann notes that “in general, supply chains are stressed across the industry. In addition to availability of raw materials, manufacturers must be aware of the lack of containers and ships, yielding longer delivery times.”

Also, says Baumann, “raw material suppliers have extended their lead times, which must be considered in supply and production planning. This also impacts supply chain flexibility, meaning it can be challenging to respond to customer demand when it has not been accurately predicted.”

He reminds industry that “the growing consumer focus on plant-based formulations is driving the market.” Therefore, he says, “It is crucial for the industry to implement a robust strategy that ensures supply keeps up with demand, to evaluate sourcing options, consider more local sourcing where possible, and strengthen supply chains to ensure consistent quality and supply.”

All good advice to keep the plant-based category of the supplement industry in the green.


  1. International Vegetarian Union website
  2. BeVeg website https://www.beveg.com/
  3. Vegan Label Growth” webpage. BeVeg website
  4. Future Market Insights report. “Vegan Supplements Market By Product Type (Powder, Liquid, Capsules, Bars), Ingredients (Vitamins & Minerals, Amino Acids, Botanical Supplements), Distribution Channel (Hypermarkets/Supermarkets, Convenience Stores, Drug Stores & Pharmacies, Health & Wellness Stores, Online Retailing) & Region – Forecast to 2020 – 2028.” Published December 2020.
  5. Natural Marketing Institute data. Supplements/OTC/Rx Trends US and Global Databases (SORD)—U.S. (2020)
  6. Euromonitor report. “Health By Generation: Understanding Healthy Lifestyles and Behaviours.” Published July 2020.
  7. Euromonitor report. “Going Plant-Based: The Rise of Vegan and Vegetarian Food.” Published November 2020.
  8. Company press release. “Roquette’s Innovative Plant-Based Solution Unlocks Possibilities for Veggie Softgel Market.” Posted November 18, 2020.
  9. Company press release. “Catalent Expands Beauty and Plant-Based Consumer Health Softgel Capabilities at Its Facilities in Canada and Brazil.” Posted June 30, 2020.
  10. Company press release. “New Study Confirms VegD3 Is a Bioavailable Source of Vitamin D Making It an Ideal Alternative for Vegans and Vegetarians.” Posted March 3, 2021.
  11. Krawiec C. “Catalent Acquires Bettera Holdings from Highlander Partners.Nutritional Outlook. Published online August 30, 2021.
  12. Company press release. “NSF Partners with BeVeg to Launch Vegan Certification Program.” Posted March 2022.
Related Videos
woman working on laptop computer by window
Related Content
© 2024 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.