Dietary supplement delivery system, which form of supplement is the best?
Capsules vs Tablets
The delivery system for supplements makes it sound as if we are talking about the postie popping them through the door of your house. In fact, it is a whole lot more scientific than this. Manufacturers of nutrients have to get the vitamins to the specific part of your body in as complete a form as possible. In other words, easily released and easily absorbed into the body. Technically your body works hard for four hours to digest your vitamins and in this process a large percentage of the active ingredient could be lost. The delivery system can in essence be the making or breaking of the bioavailability of vitamins and mineral supplements.
Depending on the nutrients, some delivery systems are better than others. Some delivery systems will suit you, some will not. Tablets and capsules are the most common form of supplement. However, there are now powders, soft gels, liquids, gummies and isotonic vitamins. It can be a little baffling when you first look on the shelves of your local pharmacy and can intimidate you with choice. Here are some pros and cons of each delivery system, which should give you the chance of making an informed decision about your supplement regimen.
Tablets come in all sorts of sizes, can be coated or uncoated, chewables or lozenges. There are even gummies, if you like to take your vitamins with a blast of sugar – and quite a large blast of sugar at that. To be effective, the tablet needs to dissolve in your body. This means that tablets have to dissolve in water within 45 minutes, according to the United States Pharmacopeia (USP). The idea is that if it can dissolve within water with a pH of 7, then it is going to dissolve in the stomach acids at a pH 1.5 to 3.5.
The main issue to consider when choosing tablets is what comes with the active ingredient; what are those hidden extras that make the tablet solid and that protect the active ingredients from oxygen, light and moisture. The binders and fillers, commonly known as excipients, can include lubricants that your body does not need. Some tablets come uncoated but this is usually a cost cutting feature and can make the tablets unpleasant to swallow, leaving a difficult after taste. For this reason, most tablets come coated, as getting passed the unpleasant taste is too much for most consumers.
Some tablets come with a coating that allows for time or sustained release, this slows the absorption into the bloodstream and can be useful with water soluble vitamins that are not stored in the body. The enteric coating is a polymer barrier that protects the nutrient from the pH of the stomach and therefore ensures the vitamin dissolves in the alkali of the intestine. This can prevent unpleasant side effects such as “fish burps” but also allows for the nutrient to pass into the bloodstream through the wall of the gut, rather than being metabolised in the stomach where some of the nutrient might be lost. This is particularly useful for probiotics, as some micro-organisms can be destroyed in the stomach. A lot of vitamins actually work better when metabolised in the lower gut, therefore such a coating is often essential for effective vitamin intake.
Gummies can help people who struggle with the taste of vitamins, similar with chewables and lozenges. The high level of sugar is a side effect of such delivery systems. Gummies are particularly effective with children who see them as candy.
Some vitamins taken in the form of gummies, lozenges or chewable can begin absorption into the blood through the mucus membranes in the mouth, therefore they begin to work quicker. For instance, zinc can be taken in lozenges and will begin to work quickly on such things as sore throats. Also, melatonin, an effective sleep aid, is better if held in the mouth for longer – in a lozenge – for instance. Therefore, you have an 80% chance of receiving the active ingredient in the systemic circulation with this delivery system.
Ultimately, for those who cannot swallow tablets or dislike swallowing so many tablets – these do offer a pleasant alternative. Iron can taste unpleasant even with the help of sugar, so this is unlikely to be found in gummies or in lozenge form.
Capsules allow the active ingredient to be delivered without mixing it with too many, if any, excipients. The capsule itself can be made of gelatine or from seaweed/ tapioca extracts: depending on whether you are vegetarian or not. Capsules are often preferred to tablets because they are easier to swallow and now the capsules can be big enough to carry up to 950mg of a nutrient. The problem comes when you have to take 3000mg of a vitamin, which would require four capsules but maybe only three tablets. The taking of so many capsules can turn many people off this delivery system.
However, in many studies it was still found that capsules were preferred by most takers of vitamins. Capsules delivered the nutrients quickly and was generally thought to be more gentle on the stomach than tablets. Despite all the innovation in delivery systems, capsules remain the most often used form of supplement.
Soft gels are somewhere between capsules and tablets. They are usually used with fat-soluble vitamins; as other vitamins would need to be mixed with oils to form into soft gel. This would introduce an unwelcome ingredient to most nutrients. Sometimes soft gel is used in supplements that mix water soluble and fat soluble vitamins.
People often choose soft gels because they mask the taste and are easy to swallow. These are particularly useful for poorly soluble nutrients, as the delivery method increases solubility and permeability. As the soft gel is a sealed unit, the vitamins last much longer on the shelf. The downside of soft gel is that it is often more expensive than other forms.
With all tablets, capsules and soft gel options the ultimate downside is the feeling you are taking a whole lot of drugs each day. This can be an unpleasant idea for some people and therefore finding more natural routes to getting supplements is important: this is where powders and liquids can be preferable. The supplements can be mixed with favourite beverages and taken with meals.
Powders allow for supplements to be made into a shake or a smoothie and drank. This works particularly well for vitamins that are measured in the milligrams rather than micro-milligrams. This means powders are particularly useful for proteins, collagen, fibres and creatines. These do not require the same degree of breakdown as tablets and capsules, therefore the body receives more of the active ingredient quicker. For this reason, protein powders have always been more popular than protein tablets with body builders.
The use of powders allows for a certain versatility for the manufacturer – as they can give lots of different tastes and colours for the consumer. However, the dosage is controlled by the end user and therefore the guidance on dosage needs to be clear if the nutrients are to be effective.
Effervescent mixes are also a form of powder. These contain acids or bicarbonates and results in the production of carbon dioxide when combined with water. This eliminates the need to stir or mix and creates a pleasant bubbly effect. There is no particular benefit to absorption but prevents unmixed formula remaining at the bottom of the glass/ mixer and therefore not reaching the body. This means the consumer is more likely to get the full dose of supplement.
Companies are now also developing a powder that you can sprinkle on the food. This is helpful to those who do not like to feel so full up from a shake or a smoothie and means that the vitamins are being delivered with food, which will protect the stomach. As with smoothie mixes and shakes, the dosage is controlled by the user, therefore the manufacturer should give clear guidelines on how much to take.
In some respects, liquids are merely the mixed form of powders. However, the liquid concentrates can include water, glycerine and lecithin as a base. Manufacturers are also likely to include preservatives, colourants and flavourings, which are an unwelcome ingredient to a health product but necessary to make them palatable and safe to consume. Preservatives can be natural such as grapefruit seed extract but they might not be, as they could use sodium benzoate. There is also the chance that the preservatives could inhibit the active ingredient, reducing the bioavailability of the nutrient. Therefore, read the label and do some research to see if you are getting value for your money.
Many herbalists prefer liquids because of the speed of absorption, with some absorption happening within the mouth – but if taken without the additives the taste might be too difficult for most consumers to palate. Liquid does allow for generous quantities of nutrients in a small dose. However, once opened liquid nutrients need to be stored in a fridge and the used by date checked. If open for a while it is important to check for mould. It is hard to avoid microbial contamination and proliferation with liquids and for this reason it is not a delivery system often used.
Isotonic literally means “same pressure”. This means that the vitamin is given the same consistency as blood, plasma and tears. As the vitamin enters the body in the form that it recognises, absorption is claimed to be quicker and more efficient. The isotonic formula allows the ingredient to pass through the membranes of cells and therefore get into the system more directly.
Rapid absorption does always mean that the vitamin is more effective though. It is likely you will get more of the active ingredient into the blood but with some vitamins this will result in the body dumping that which is does not need. In fact, you could actually flood the system and cause little to be taken in through the gut. This is why some tablets include a coating that allows for slow release.
Furthermore, many isotonic vitamins require you to consume them on an empty stomach, this means that fat soluble vitamins will not be absorbed as well as they should.
Think carefully about what you need from your supplement. Here are some question to ask and answer as you find your vitamin mix. What percentage bioavailability is claimed by the manufacturer? In other words, how much of the active ingredient do they claim will make it into your system?
Do you need your supplement to taste good or not taste at all? Does taste even matter to you?
Do you struggle to take tablets and capsules? Does it matter how many capsules you would have to take, when there may be fewer tablets? Do you hate getting filled up on shakes and smoothies?
Are you worried about the hidden extras that come with vitamins? Or, are you happy to trust that the pros and cons of the chemical mixture has been carefully considered by the manufacturer?
Does cost matter? Are you willing to accept tablets without coating if it offers cost effectiveness? Or, are you will to pay extra for isotonic vitamins or soft gel delivery systems?
Many of these questions are down to you as the consumer. The effectiveness of each of these delivery systems are dependent on the supplement and in reality the manufacturer. Therefore, you have the power to shop around and find the best choice for you – whatever that might be. Keep in mind what you are hoping to achieve from the supplement – if it is for topical relief or long-term health benefits. Keep in mind your ability to commit to sustaining a regimen of supplements and choose one that best fits into your lifestyle.
The good news about such a high level of choice is that you as the consumer are in control. You can make supplements work for you and make your life better as you do.
If you enjoyed reading this article, we are sure you will enjoy the rest of the Ultimate Guide to Supplements Series:
- WHAT IS BIOAVAILABILITY? HOW IT CAN HELP YOU GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR SUPPLEMENTS
- RECOMMENDED DAILY INTAKE OF SUPPLEMENTS
- 10 MISTAKES OF CONSUMING SUPPLEMENTS