Delivering Consumer Preference and Product Performance

How Plant-Based Capsules Meet Consumer Demand and Enhance Product Benefits


For decades, gelatin has been the preferred choice for hard and soft capsules in both nutraceutical and pharmaceutical applications. Gelatin offers low manufacturing costs, yields high quality capsule products, provides formulation flexibility and is adaptable to a wide variety of applications. However, safety concerns over gelatin, such as potential risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or concerns related to the recent outbreak of swine fever in China are influencing the consumer’s choice. 

Further, as consumers continue to seek information about what’s in the products they ingest—from food, to dietary supplements to pharmaceutical products —they’re evaluating the origins of ingredients and the environmental and societal impacts of the overall products.  In just the last decade, these fast-growing vegetarian and ‘flexitarian’ populations have greatly influenced the capsule market, and the growth of vegetarian capsules is expected to greatly outpace its animal-based counterparts.   A 2018 Allied Market Research report estimates the vegetarian capsule market will grow about two times faster than gelatin over the span from 2017-2025. 

While appealing to this growing audience is a crucial opportunity, manufacturers also need a solution that drives capsule performance, providing effective stability during production, through transport and ultimately, on the shelf.

The cellulose-based Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC) a leading vegetarian solution for hard capsules, providing high-performing, versatile, animal-free option.  The vegetarian soft capsule market is not far behind with carrageenan as a preferred choice to replace gelatin. These ingredients offer not only the plant-based origins consumers desire, but also the performance-driven results manufacturers seek.

Better Stability—in Vegetarian Hard or Soft Capsules
In hard capsules, hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC) has clear advantages over gelatin. Due to its structural make-up, it is thermally more stable and it holds stability even in low humidity conditions with one-third less moisture than gelatin . HPMC’s low static charge facilitates the capsule manufacturing and processing. HPMC-based capsules are very suitable for a broad range of fill materials and formulations as a result of HPMC’s chemical inertness. The lack of crosslinking reactions yields in superior stability and shelf life of HPMC capsules. 

Similarly, carrageenan is a great choice for vegetarian soft capsules as it maintains structural integrity under higher temperatures than gelatin-based capsules. Since it’s heat stable and pH neutral, it won’t deform or stick together during transport and throughout shelf life. Carrageenan is also a flexible technology, allowing manufacturers to customize the colors, sizes and shapes of their capsules to fit their brand requirements.  Carrageenan also provides advantages over other vegetarian options, such as starch, generating higher capsule yields, superior sealing performance and reduced leakage. Carrageenan also ruptures more quickly and disintegrates faster than similarly filled starch gel capsules, allowing the active ingredient to deliver for the consumer in shorter amount of time.

Safe and Sustainable
Gelatin is hot water extracted from the hoofs, bones and connective tissues of pigs and bovine skin. Potential contamination in these extraction phases poses a major safety concern. If the pigs are predisposed to diseases like swine flu, fever or mad cow disease, the disease may transfer to the drug formulation and thus expose consumers to illness. The U.S. supply chain recently saw an uptick in swine fever cases from an outbreak impacting pigs in China—around 150 million of China’s 440 million swine were reportedly diseased .  

Both carrageenan and HPMC are naturally-derived, eliminating the possibility of contracting diseases from BSE or transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE).  Carrageenan is harvested from red seaweed collected by family seaweed farmers in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Tanzania.  Seaweed farmers around the world harvest an estimated 210,000 metric tons of red seaweed a year, totaling over $250 million in value. According to a 2013 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Many of these communities lived at or below the poverty level prior to engaging in seaweed farming.”

Carrageenan production also benefits the environment. Growing red seaweed requires no fresh water, no pesticides, and no fertilizers to grow, and it does not use farmland. Seaweed also absorbs and neutralizes greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. 

Essential Solutions and Vital Expertise from Nutrition & Biosciences
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to capsules. Manufacturers have their own, proprietary formulations and processes, which require tailored polymers and hands-on support to make applications work. Nutrition& Biosciences is an expert not only in polymers derived from natural sources, but also in making them suitable for the many unique processes and parameters of capsule production.  Our SeaGel® soft capsule technology is adaptable to existing gelatin equipment, minimizing the upfront investment required to convert operations. Further, Nutrition & Biosciences will guide you through installation and adoption of the technology to meet your specifications.

Making the switch to vegetarian capsules from gelatin for capsule development offers greater performance, quality and safety, and appeals to a growing consumer audience. Which is a truly sustainable solution.


i Vasavi Chandrika, M., Vijaya Krishna, M., Jyothirmayi, M., Ankamma Naidu, T., & Manikanta swamy, V. (2016). Alternatives for Gelatin in the Preparation of Capsules. Retrieved from

ii Swine fever in China raises concern over heparin supply for US. (2019, August 2). Retrieved from

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