A Kinder, Gentler Capsule


Manufacturers have responded to the growing demand for gelatin-free supplements by offering capsules made from plant-derived materials. While consumers who prefer vegetarian, kosher, or halal supplements still have limited choices, their options are expanding.


Vegetarian consumers often face a dilemma in the supplement aisle. While their diets may lack important nutrients like vitamin B12, most of the supplements they have to choose from are encapsulated with gelatin-an animal-derived ingredient. Other consumers might face a similar problem if they want gelatin-free capsules for religious or cultural reasons.

Manufacturers have responded to the growing demand for gelatin-free supplements by offering capsules made from plant-derived materials. While consumers who prefer vegetarian, kosher, or halal supplements still have limited choices, their options are expanding.

“There is an increasing global demand for products that offer a vegetarian alternative,” says Jeff Avila, head of sales and marketing for SwissCaps USA Inc. (Miami), which makes one-piece soft capsules called VegaGels from tapioca starch. “In 2005, 25% of the U.S. population reported regularly making vegetarian choices.”

Bob Brosnan, director of nutritional business development at Qualicaps Inc. (Whitsett, NC), which manufactures its two-piece Quali-V capsules from hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC), agrees. “We forecast that the demand will continue to grow at twice the growth rate of the industry,” Brosnan says.

Although vegetarians are a driving force behind the market category, other consumers are also boosting demand. Only about 2.3% of Americans are vegetarians, according to a 2006 Harris Interactive (Rochester, NY) poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group (Baltimore). Yet sales of vegetarian foods hit $1.2 billion in 2005 and could grow to $1.7 billion by 2010, according to market research firm Mintel (London). That’s because nearly a third of all consumers report monthly consumption of vegetarian items, even if they don’t consider themselves vegetarian.

“We believe this is important because it strongly suggests that consumer interest in vegetarian alternatives is no longer a niche, but has instead spread to a much wider audience of health-conscious consumers actively seeking vegetarian products,” Avila says. He adds that the growth of the vegetarian segment mirrors the growth of organics, which have averaged year-on-year growth of 20% since 1997 despite having higher price points than conventional foods. “This shows that not only are an increasing number of consumers demanding healthy options,” Avila says, “but also that they are willing to pay more for them.”


Gelatin is a water-soluble protein usually extracted from animal tissues, bones, and hides. French inventors used gelatin to create the first pharmaceutical capsules in the 1830s. Since then, gelatin has remained the primary material for encapsulation technology. Despite its long history, gelatin has some distinct advantages as well as disadvantages.

On one hand, manufacturers are more experienced with gelatin, a material that is relatively simple to use. “The industry has 100 years of experience making gelatin capsules,” explains Herbert Hugill, CEO of the Qualicaps Group (Whitsett, NC). “Therefore, gelatin capsules are less expensive, easier to manufacture, and are typically easier for customers to fill efficiently on their automated filling machines.”

On the other hand, cultural attitudes and regulatory requirements in some regions can make gelatin an uphill sell. “In today’s global marketplace, manufacturers and marketers must be increasingly concerned with a vast and constantly changing number of restrictions related to ingredients,” Avila says. “It is also difficult to develop products that appeal to a wide range of ethnic and religious groups. Gelatin, while safe, can present challenges from a regulatory and cultural standpoint with many nations and ethnicities.”


Vegetarian capsules are often made using HPMC, a purified form of water-soluble cellulose that doesn’t require special processing equipment. For instance, Qualicaps Inc.’s patented Quali-V HPMC capsules can be run on high-speed filling machines. According to Hans Christian Moxter, European sales and marketing director at Qualicaps Europe SA (Madrid, Spain), Quali-V capsules, which are kosher and halal certified, compare favorably with gelatin capsules. “HPMC capsules are resilient, and our customers can reach the same output with Quali-V capsules as with gelatin,” Moxter says.

HPMC is also resistant to cross-linking, a chemical reaction between gelatin and fill ingredients that can result in brittle capsules. “Cross-linking can lead to poor dissolution and potentially interfere with absorption of the supplement,” Hugill says. “The cross-linking phenomenon is not a significant problem in most cases with gelatin capsules, but it is nonexistent for most HPMC capsules.”

Dissolution actually is an important consideration when it comes to capsules. “The dissolution profile of capsules varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, depending on their ingredients and processes,” says Hugill. “Qualicaps capsules have dissolution properties that are very close to gelatin capsules, as our patented process relies on carrageenan as the gelling agent. Some HPMC capsules rely on other gelling agents that are not as soluble and delay dissolution, particularly in certain media.”

However, there are some nuances about filling HPMC capsules that machine operators must master, adds Hugill. “For example, HPMC is more pliable than gelatin capsules, and the filling machine must be adjusted to compensate for these characteristic differences between capsule types,” Hugill says. HPMC also requires more time than gelatin to form a film on the mold pin, which slows the gelling process.

Another alternative material is tapioca starch, a renewable resource that creates good seals and vapor barriers while adding enhanced clarity and shine to capsule shells. For instance, tapioca’s barrier qualities enable SwissCaps USA’s kosher- and halal-certified VegaGels to be filled with liquids or pastes, such as fish oil, saw palmetto, vitamin E, flaxseed, and borage. “Because of the unique manufacturing process, VegaGels offer stable, well-sealed capsules without the use of gums, glues, or solvents,” Avila says.

SwissCaps uses a new extrusion and rotary-die process to create a gelatin-free ribbon that has a very low water content, enabling the encapsulation of hygroscopic ingredients. In addition, VegaGels become slippery when their surfaces come in contact with saliva, making them relatively easy to swallow even in the absence of liquid.

While SwissCaps currently encapsulates more formulas with higher levels of herbal materials in gelatin, Avila notes that the company has been working on making VegaGels compatible with an even wider range of nutraceutical and OTC ingredients. “We are closing that gap by focusing our ongoing VegaGel R&D applications with challenging herbal or hygroscopic fill materials,” Avila says.


People often see vegetarian products, like meat analogs or vegetarian supplements, as tasteless or inferior versions of conventional items. To many consumers, however, vegetarian foods and supplements offer added value precisely because of what they lack. “Manufacturers and marketers are always looking for an advantage, ways to improve current formulas, or ways to launch new products that will be distinguished from the competition,” says Avila. “A vegetarian delivery form also drives the perception of the formula as high end, which can help drive a higher price point.” Will natural alternatives like HPMC and tapioca continue to challenge gelatin as the material of choice for capsules in the future? The proof is in the pudding.

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