Gummies are hot, but can they compete with what high-tech pills offer long-term? 2022 SupplySide West Report

At SupplySide West, delivery systems providers talked about how they are taking capsules and softgels to the next level, presenting stiff competition to the ever-popular gummy.

Gummies may be the trendiest delivery vehicle in nutraceuticals at the moment. But one should not underestimate the advancements that capsule and softgel producers are making. These advancements are enabling these delivery forms to meet consumer demands for high performance and ingredient efficacy thanks to their protective and custom-release benefits—and, due to the industry’s ongoing innovation, they are now providing an even more pleasing consumer experience.

Proving It Works

The most important benefit softgels and capsules offer is good protection for ingredients in transit and during ingestion, ultimately rendering products more stable, bioavailable, and thus more effective. Consumers are guaranteed to get the health benefits they are paying for because these delivery systems, well, deliver. Softgels and capsules can also handle a high load of active ingredients—often higher than gummies can—while also masking any unpleasant ingredient flavors by nature of their encapsulation.

These benefits have long been touted by softgel and capsule providers, who also point out that their technologies can offer some advanced benefits like extended-release or custom-release profiles that enable product makers to dictate just how and when ingredients are absorbed in the user’s gastrointestinal tract, protecting the ingredients within until they reach the location where they should be released—for instance, remaining intact in the capsule until it reaches the large intestine.

Now, one company is offering additional data proving what makes its capsule designs so effective. At the SupplySide West trade show in Las Vegas in November, Nutritional Outlook interviewed representatives from capsules specialist Lonza Capsules & Health Ingredients (Greenwood, SC), who said the company recently completed a study providing more data on how its innovative branded capsule designs perform. These include Lonza's DRcaps (delayed-release HPMC capsules that protect ingredients from stomach acidity and only dissolve at an alkaline pH level), Vcaps (vegetarian HPMC capsules), and Vcaps Plus (immediate-release HPMC capsules without any gelling agents).

At the show, Zain Saiyed, PhD, FACN, head of global product development and innovation, explained why Lonza wanted to invest in the recent study. “We have different capsule polymers like DRcaps, Vcaps, and Vcaps Plus, and we wanted to understand, based on the capsule polymer type, where in the gut it delivers, and we especially wanted to focus on an ingredient like probiotics.” As an ingredient, probiotics require a delivery system that will protect against challenges like moisture.

Saiyed listed some of the results Lonza’s study unveiled revealing the superiority of its capsule forms. “When we tested different sets of polymers, we found that our DRcaps”—specifically, one that features a smaller capsule housed in a larger capsule, with the inner capsule providing delayed release and additional ingredient protection—“was able to deliver 46-times-higher viable probiotic compared to a standard, single-capsule delayed-release capsule,” he reported. (The probiotic strain tested was IFF Health’s Lactobacillus acidophilus LA-14 strain.)

The reasons for these better results, he said, is because the DRcaps capsule-in-a-capsule design “stabilizes” the probiotic ingredient within. Not only that, but it can also reduce costs for manufacturers by lessening the amount of ingredient overage that they previously needed to include to overcompensate for any loss in ingredient viability in a standard delivery vehicle. “For our customers, it helps because it’s increasing the stability and the viability, and they can reduce the overage," he said. "Probiotic overages may run anywhere from 300%-600%. So by delivering it in our delivery system, you can reduce the overage. So there is a cost-saving component as well.”

In addition to the DRcaps, Lonza also offers its DuoCap capsule-in-a-capsule technology, which likewise protects probiotics from moisture, with the hydroscopic glycerin capsule material further absorbing residual moisture, preventing it from penetrating the inner capsule.

Lonza offers many different capsule-release choices, giving manufacturers many ways to maximize the efficacy of their product. The choice depends on the target, said Amy Sunderman, director, R&D Ingredients, at SupplySide West. “It depends on what you’re trying to achieve,” she said. "That’s what Lonza is focused on. We have a lot of different solutions.”

For instance, she said, “Some people want something that releases right away; they don’t want it to be delayed. They want something that provides an immediate benefit, and we have a capsule that can do that” and release ingredients into the upper GI tract. Or, by contrast, companies seeking delayed release can choose an option like the DRcaps capsule-in-a-capsule which lets ingredients “get all the way to the ileum,” she said.

“So it depends on what the customer is looking for, really,” she added. “It’s not about which one is the best. One will be the best for this solution; one will be best for another solution.”

Competing with Gummies

Softgel and tablet manufacturers interviewed at the show said they aren’t concerned about losing permanent market share to gummies simply because their delivery technologies can do more and provide a more sophisticated, effective product to consumers, especially seasoned users who might be looking beyond the “fad” of a gummy and to a delivery system that maximizes product efficacy, they said.

These delivery systems also offer some benefits that many gummies don’t. For instance, gummies can be high in sugar, whereas capsules and softgels don’t require consumers to consume extra sugar, something that Soft Gel Technologies’ (Commerce, CA) President and CEO Steve Holtby pointed out at the show.

Kapish Karan, MS, global OSD leader at Ashland (Wilmington, DE), agreed. “Gummies are high in sugar. Some people offer reduced-sugar gummies, but you’re still consuming sugar.” To avoid this, more companies and consumers may turn to other alternative delivery vehicles that aren’t gummies but that still aren’t tablets or capsules, such as the organic chewable tablets and effervescent options Ashland is offering. For instance, said Karan, “With our organic chewable base, it’s clean-label, and we have a sugar-free option. So even if consumers are taking it, they’re getting a good mouthfeel but also not consuming a lot of sugar.”

Adding Pizazz to Pills

Ashland's Karan said that many consumers will still continue seeking out non-pill delivery formats. “I think a lot of people like that mouthfeel, the organoleptics, which you don’t get from your standard tablets and capsules," he said.

To this end, Lonza has also begun offering a new option that will satisfy consumers who still want a pill option but who also want an enhanced organoleptic experience. The company recently began adding flavor coatings to its capsules.

“One of the things that people look to gummies for is a pleasant experience,” said Saiyed. Lonza’s capsule flavor coatings can provide that “pleasant flavor experience” that consumers desire. And flavors can be paired to match the marketing of a product. For instance, Lonza offers food-based natural colors for its capsules. If you combine a lavender-flavored coating and a purple-colored capsule (a color which consumers tend to associate with sleep, he said), it can enhance the product’s marketing and consumer experience. And a pleasant experience can increase compliance, getting consumers to take their supplements regularly because they like the process of consuming them, he said.

Longevity for Capsules and Softgels

As a final thought, Lonza’s Sunderman noted that while a lot of first-time dietary supplement users, which the industry especially attracted during the COVID-19 pandemic as nutraceuticals usage skyrocketed, might find a gummy format more familiar and friendlier to start with compared to standard pills, once these consumers use supplements for longer and educate themselves on what works best, they may instead seek out other types of delivery systems.

“As people become more sophisticated supplement users, they’re looking for dosages, they’re looking for clinically backed ingredients,” Sunderman said. “So I think as consumers become more sophisticated and are looking for more specific benefits, they’ll come back to that delivery form and to some of these new designed-release options that are more scientific and more specific to the benefit they’re trying to achieve.”