Gelatin capsules vs. Vegetarian capsules: what's the difference?

November 14, 2023

Today, we're going to delve into the ever-popular question: should you choose gelatin capsules or vegetarian capsules? Perhaps you're wondering, what mysterious differences exist between the two. Is the strength of animals more advantageous, or is the freshness of plants more appealing to consumers? If you're still unsure about which capsule to use, we have conducted a comprehensive comparison of gelatin capsules and vegetarian capsules to help you make a decision.

1. What are gelatin capsules?

Gelatin capsules are formed by extracting collagen from an animal source (usually bovine bone or pig skin) and processing it. This processed gelatin texture can be used to create capsules that are used to fill different nutraceutical ingredients. Gelatin capsules in supplements usually use beef and pork.

1.1 Advantages of gelatin capsules

1. Cost effective

Often chosen by manufacturers with limited budgets, gelatin capsules are more affordable. For example, if you are producing a basic daily vitamin supplement for the mass market, choosing gelatin capsules can help control production costs and provide an affordable product.

2. Excellent barrier properties

Gelatin capsules provide an excellent barrier for sensitive ingredients, effectively protecting them from external factors such as moisture and oxygen to maintain their efficacy. For example, nutraceuticals like vitamins or probiotics are very susceptible to moisture or oxidation. Then, gelatin capsules act as protection.

3. High compatibility

Gelatin capsules are compatible with a wide range of ingredients and formulations, making them ideal for manufacturers' flexibility. If your nutraceutical contains a mixture of ingredients, including powdered herbs, minerals, and vitamins, gelatin capsules can effectively encapsulate these ingredients.

1.2 Disadvantages of gelatin capsules

The main disadvantage of gelatin capsules is that the target group for your supplement product will be limited. Because the main ingredient in gelatin capsules is derived from animal collagen, they are not suitable for consumers who adhere to a vegetarian or vegan diet. For example, if your product is geared towards health-conscious consumers with strict dietary preferences (e.g. plant-based protein supplements), then it's a poor fit.

2. What are vegetarian capsules

Vegetarian capsules are made from raw materials derived from plant sources (usually wood fibers, such as cellulose). More specifically, the main ingredient in vegetarian capsules is hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC). It is suitable for most powder or gel formulations.

2.1 Advantages of Vegetarian Capsules

The most obvious advantage of vegan capsules alone - is that they are accessible to vegans - a viable alternative to animal-sourced gelatin capsules. It is made from plant-based materials and is completely free from animal products, making it an ethical choice that caters to a wider group of consumers.

If your company's aim is to promote sustainability, then using vegan capsules can align your product with your brand values and appeal to this type of consumer.

2.2 Disadvantages of vegetarian capsules

Compared to gelatin capsules, vegan capsules are more expensive to produce, which can affect the overall cost of the final product.

If you have a limited budget, such as producing a range of low-cost vitamins for the budget-conscious consumer, then the cost of vegan capsules is less justified.

3. Main differences between gelatin capsules and vegetarian capsules

1. Stability:

● Gelatin capsules: gelatin capsules have higher stability because they contain less water (3%-7%).

● Vegetarian capsules: Vegetarian capsules are less stable because they contain more water (13%-15%) and are sensitive to extreme humidity.

2. Cross-linking problems:

● Gelatin Capsules: Gelatin capsules cross-link when exposed to high humidity, temperature, UV light, or specific filler components, thereby reducing their solubility. They can accommodate a variety of filler materials, including those containing aldehydes.

● Vegetarian Capsules: Vegetarian capsules are suitable for dry and powdered materials, but they may not be suitable for certain liquid materials, such as oils and gels containing aldehydes.

3. Degradation by light:

● Gelatin capsules: gelatin capsules degrade when exposed to light.

● Vegetarian capsules: Vegetarian capsules are more resistant to degradation caused by sunlight.

4. Degradation by heat:

● Gelatin capsules: Gelatin capsules begin to degrade at temperatures above 60°C. ● Vegetarian capsules: Vegetarian capsules are more resistant to degradation caused by sunlight.

● Vegetarian capsules: Vegetarian capsules are more resistant to heat and begin to degrade at temperatures greater than 80°C.

5. Oxygen permeability:

● Gelatin capsules: Gelatin capsules have high oxygen permeability.

● Vegetarian capsules: Vegetarian capsules have lower oxygen permeability.

6. Solubility:

● Gelatin Capsules: Gelatin capsules dissolve well at body temperature (37°C), but their solubility decreases as the temperature drops below 37°C. They become insoluble below 30°C.

● Vegetarian capsules: Vegetarian capsules are soluble in water at room temperature.

7. Risk of TSE (transmissible spongiform encephalopathy):

Gelatin capsules derived from cattle may require TSE certification to ensure safety.

FeaturesGelatin capsulesVegetarian capsules
Cross-linking problemLeads to reduced solubilityAbsent
TolerabilitySuitable for dry and powdered materialsSuitable for all fill materials
Degradation by lightPossibleNo
Degradation by heatApproximately above 60°CApproximately above 80°C
Oxygen PermeabilityLowerHigher
Dissolution in water at room temperatureInsolubleSoluble
TSEFor bovine typeAbsent

4. Choosing the right capsule for you

Often, there are many factors to consider when determining the best type of capsule for your supplement product. But, of the many factors, two are particularly critical:

1. Your customer group

This is the primary consideration when choosing vegan capsules and gelatin capsules. In today's increasingly pro-vegetarian society, there is a growing consumer demand for vegetarian and vegan products and supplements1. But, not every consumer is seeking vegetarian or vegan products. Therefore, it is key that you need to have an in-depth understanding of who your customers are and what they want.

2. Your formula

While both vegan capsules and gelatin capsules have their own advantages, they also each have some limitations. Understanding the characteristics of your specific formulation is key to ensuring you choose the right type of capsule.

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