Supplements come in all different forms and preparations. Capsules, vegetarian capsules, softgels, caplets, lozenges, powder, liquid are some of the most common. Complicating matters further, you’ll often find supplements labeled with fancy terms such as “buffered” “time released” or “enteric coated.” With so many options comes inevitable confusion and uncertainty over which form is best. In this article, we cut through the confusion and provide a break down of the differences.
Why so many options? To large extent, this comes down to marketing. As the nutritional supplements industry has grown, so has competition. Supplement manufactures have attempted to differentiate their brand or justify a higher price by introducing new ways to package or promote the same product. As you will soon find out, whether your choose to buy capsules or tablets, time released or enteric coated often makes very little difference.
Tablet form supplements remain extremely popular and for good reason: they are cheap to produce and have a long shelf. They are often your most affordable option won’t go bad quickly. Tablets come in all different shapes and sizes and some people find larger tablets difficult to swallow. “Caplets” are just like tablets, only they are smaller and coated with a glaze, making them easier to swallow.
Are Tablets Poorly Absorbed? Some worry that tablets will not disintegrate fully, resulting in poor absorption and irritation of the gut! This concern is largely unwarranted. High quality tablet supplements are designed to break down rapidly in the stomach, and studies have repeatedly found that tablets are just as well absorbed as capsules and other types of supplements. As long as you are purchasing from a reputable brand, you don’t need to worry about tablets passing through your GI intact.
Capsule supplements are produced by packing powdered ingredients inside of a thin capsule. Capsules can be swallowed directly, or opened up and mixed into food or drink. When swallowed whole, capsules typically dissolve in under a minute.
Capsules are generally flavorless and somewhat easier to swallow than tablets. In addition capsules do not contain binding ingredients such as cellulose, which some wish to avoid. Capsules are often promoted as more being better absorbed relative to tablets. Though do dissolve and disperse somewhat more quickly, but are not shown be absorbed or assimilated any better than tablets.
Capsules supplements are typically priced a bit higher than tablet supplements since they are costly to produce. Capsules also lose potency faster than tablets as they are not airtight and expose a supplement’s active ingredients to oxidation.
Capsules have traditionally been produced using gelatin, an animal byproduct. Today, vegetarian friendly capsules made of cellulose are widely available and increasingly popular.
Loose powder supplements can also be purchased in bulk volumes for a very low price. Powder supplements tend to be less popular because they are more difficult to dose and may have an off-putting taste. However, for those wishing to avoid additives or save money, powder form supplements can be a great option.
Lozenges are placed under the tongue or inside the cheek and dissolved “sublingually” before being swallowed. A limited number of supplements, including vitamin b-12, have been proven to absorb best in this manner. Typically a carrier such as malate or sorbate is used to help drive the active ingredient through the oral tissue and into the blood stream. Lozenges are intended to be swallowed once they are fully dissolved. So, they are actually absorbed in two different ways: in the mouth and in the GI tract.
Softgels & Liquids
Oil based supplements and vitamin supplements that are best absorbed in an oil based carrier, such as essential oils and vitamin A, are often sold as softgels or liquids. Softgels are similar to capsules with a few differences: they are more airtight, a bit slower to dissolve, and also more expensive.
Some brands have developed liquid or softgel preparations of water soluble nutrients traditionally sold in solid form. Contrary to some claims, there is no evidence such preparations are more effective or more bio-available than their capsule or tablet equivalents.
What does “buffered” mean?
Buffered means this supplement is prepared with a mild acid or base to help regulate pH levels as this supplement passes through the GI tract. This can help improve absorption of certain supplements, such as vitamin C, or reduce symptoms of heartburn. Typically buffering is unnecessary, and some cases supplement makers use this term justify the addition of low quality admixtures. Where buffering is a useful factor to consider for a particular supplement, we’ll point this out in our supplement guides.
What does “enteric coated” mean?
Enteric coated means this supplement has been shielded by a polysaccharide compound that resists dissolution in the acid environment of the gut, but readily dissolves in the intestines. This technique was developed by the pharmaceutical industry to protect the stomach lining from ulcer forming drugs such as aspirin or to prevent certain drugs from being broken down by stomach acid.
Enteric coating has been promoted by some supplement brands as a way to increase bioavailability of a supplement. This is largely unsupported. Nutritional supplements are the bio-equivalent of food and can ordinarily pass through the stomach without problem. Enteric coated supplements are more expensive and generally not worthwhile. However, there are two cases where enteric coating has some merit:
- Some people are bothered by a fishy aftertaste from fish oil supplements; enteric coating can reduce this side-effect
- pro-biotic supplements may deliver a higher active cell count into the small intestine when enteric coating is used
What does “timed-released” mean?
Time releasing is another fancy technique that was borrowed from the pharmaceutical industry. Various surface coatings are used to delay or phase the dissolution of active ingredients after ingestion. For certain supplements, particularly some hormones, it is desirable to create a sustained release of active ingredients into the bloodstream.
On the other hand, time-release preparations can actually hinder absorption of certain nutrients. Nutrients are often best absorbed at specific points along the GI tract. If a nutrient passes a key update point before it is fully dissolved, it may never be be unabsorbed.
Where timed-release formulation is worth considering for a particular supplement, we’ll point this out in our supplement guides.
What about inactive ingredients?
Nutritional supplements are typically formulated with inactive ingredients, referred to as excipients.
- Tablets and capsules commonly include trace amounts of “flow” agents, which are used prevent caking of active ingredients during the manufacturing process. Common examples of flow agents include magnesium stearate and silica.
- Tablets are typically formulated with of a form of cellulose (fiber) to bind the tablets and support rapid dissolution in the stomach. Tablets are also often formulated with stearic acid (a fat) and/or a form of glaze (e.g. gelatin, shellac) to lubricate the capsules. This protects tablets from moisture and can make them easier to swallow .
- Liquid supplements are often formulated with organic acids, such as citric acid, or preservatives, such as potassium sorbate, to increase shelf stability and avoid bacterial growth.
Inactive ingredients used in nutritional supplements are regulated by the FDA. They must either be qualified as GRAS (“generally recognized as safe”) or used in accordance with FDA regulation to ensure safety.
For more information about a particular additive, you can check out drugs.com’s database of common supplement additives.