Vegan and vegetarian capsules

Vegan, Vegetarian and Gelatin Capsules [Which Material To Choose?]

Many people prefer to take their medications or supplements in the form of capsules. Not only do capsules have little to no taste, but they also dissolve quickly in the intestines and are most of the time are relatively easy to manufacture compared to tablets.

When purchasing empty capsules, there is now a choice to be made between vegetarian options like HPMC or Pullulan Capsules or the more traditional gelatin capsules. Although preference may simply be dictated by the needs of the customer, some understanding of both types is desirable to enable the most appropriate materials to be selected for any given application.

Gelatin Capsules

Gelatin has been used as a medication for many years and is the most common material used in capsule production. Gelatin itself has known health benefits when digested – it is good for the digestive system, protects joints and helps to reduce joint pain, it is believed to assist in improving sleep, lifting moods and some studies suggest it improves cognitive functions. This is why most supplement manufacturers still use gelatin capsules as their main choice when developing new products. 

Skin, bones and connective animal tissues

Gelatin is a translucent, brittle solid substance that is colorless or slightly yellow, nearly tasteless and odorless. It is a mixture of peptides and proteins created by partial hydrolysis of collagen extracted from the skin, bones, and connective tissues of animals. Beef, chicken, and pork are commonly used. Blends of bone and pork skin gelatins are normally used to produce hard capsules. The bones produce a tough, hazy but brittle gelatin film, whereas skin produces a clearer material with greater plasticity.

3 Stages of Gelatin Production

1. Pretreatment

The first stage involves washing the raw material with dilute acid to remove calcium and treatment with hot or boiling water to remove fats.

2. Extraction

Extraction of the collagen is achieved using either acid or alkali, depending on the nature of the raw material, and is performed in a series of steps.

3. Refining 

The final stage of refining may include several steps such as filtration, evaporation, drying, grinding, and sifting.

Gelatin has been used in medicines for many years and a wide range of both hard and soft gelatin capsules are available commercially, differing in features such as colour, size and flavour. Hard gelatine capsules are ideal for encasing solid powdered drug formulations or nutraceuticals. They are not suitable for aqueous liquids or slurries as water can infiltrate and degrade the gelatine shell. This has to be borne in mind when choosing the type of capsule material. For aqueous materials, polymer-based capsule materials are to be preferred.

Vegetarian Alternatives

There are now 2 main types of Vegan and Vegetarian capsules on the market. The first is HPMC which is made from cellulose. The second is Pullulan which is an extract of tapioca roots. More and more HPMC capsules and Pullulan capsules are becoming increasingly popular. This is for a variety of reasons. 

Religious, Cultural and Personal Reasons

The consumption of gelatin from particular animals may be forbidden by religious or cultural customs. For example, Jewish kosher and Islamic halal practices require gelatin from sources other than pigs, such as cattle or fish.

Vegans and vegetarians choose not to eat foods containing gelatin made from animals, and an option for such people is to substitute the animal gelatin with material made obtained by extracting collagen from fish bones.

Non-Toxic Cellulose

An alternative to both animal and fish gelatin is that of cellulose. This material is of natural plant origin and has no known potential health hazards, even when taken for long periods. It is non-toxic.

Research into synthetic collagen began in 2011, and partial success has been achieved in replicating collagen's organic structure using self-assembling peptides.

There are other materials that are widely used as alternatives to gelatin in cooking. Examples include the seaweed extracts agar and carrageenan, in addition to pectin and konjac. Such materials may, however, not be suitable for forming into capsules.

Compromising on health benefits?

Vegetarian and vegan capsules are, now available commercially in a range of sizes and shapes, and should be considered when choosing for filling capsules. It must be remembered, however, that vegetarian substitutes for do not possess the medical benefits commonly attributed to animal gelatin, such as help with joint issues.


Before purchasing empty capsules for filling with drugs or nutraceuticals, manufacturers should understand the intended market as each capsule material has its own advantages and disadvantages. Because both gelatin and vegetarian capsules are available in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, it is also important to make sure that the capsule material and the drug formulation are compatible so that the most appropriate capsule material is chosen. In particular, aqueous drug formulations are not usually compatible with most gelatins, but can readily be used in capsules made of cellulose.

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