Vegetarian Softgels: Combining Clean Labeling and a Healthy Outlook

by Cassandra R. May 26, 2015

Recent trends in the vegetarian market has prompted nutritional supplement manufacturers to make technological advancements in vegetarian softgel production.The steady rise of vegetarian softgel manufacturing has been in response to changing consumer trends in the market. With more health awareness and environmental concerns emerging throughout the past decade, people around the world are searching for healthier options to accommodate their lifestyle, spending power, and nutrition. Vegetarian softgels meet this demand through advanced, stable manufacturing and ingredients that avoid the animal by-products of traditional softgels. With the right marketing and a key understanding of what vegetarian supplements can offer, distributors can take advantage of this growing market for consumers actively looking for alternative options.

The Growing Market of the Health-Conscious

It should come as no surprise that most consumers taking vitamins and dietary supplements do so for their overall health and general wellness. According to a recent survey by the Council for Responsible Nutrition, 54% of Americans take nutritional supplements for primarily this reason, and have demonstrated this health-conscious trend in other aspects of their lifestyle by maintaining daily activity, avoiding harmful habits such as smoking, and taking more control over their diets and food consumption.

One of the most prominent changes that some consumers have made over time is switching to a more vegetable-based diet. Yet, vegetarianism isn't limited to the health-conscious alone; those concerned with the environment, food safety, and animal welfare have made the change to only consume animal-free products as well. This modern vegetarian movement has been years in the making. After World War II, a number of consumers opted for a reduced or meat-free diet because of world hunger concerns. In the United States, according to Public Policy Polling, 13% of Americans identify themselves as vegan or vegetarian. The percentage is even larger when it comes to consumers consciously trying to eat more fruits and vegetables in their meals, rising up to 33% of the US population, according to a Harris poll study.

The vegetarian market also contains consumers that have adopted the lifestyle for other reasons. For example, the consumption of meat or animal-derived products is prohibited in certain religious or cultural groups. In India, 20%–42% of consumers are vegetarians due to Hindu practices. According to Euromonitor International, this number is divided into even more specific vegetarian groups, where 31% are considered lacto-vegetarian—consuming just milk and honey from animal-derived products—and 9% only consume eggs but no other meats. Other countries including Taiwan, Israel, Germany, and the UK have become more vegetarian-friendly as well.

Due to consumers having more plant-based diets, demand has been growing for nutritional supplements to help compensate for any deficiencies from a vegetarian/vegan diet. But to meet with all vegetarian concerns, manufacturers have had to develop vegetarian supplements that address the topic of food safety and animal byproduct restrictions. The development of the vegetarian softgel, which substitutes a starch-carrageenan based shell instead of animal-gelatin, has provided the public the means to continue supplementing their animal-free diets, while also giving marketers a vast opportunity.

A Slow and Steady Development of Vegetarian Softgels

Vegetarian softgels provide a number of advantages over animal-gelatin softgels, which include clean labeling claims, thermal stability, and market appeal. Their bioavailability also matches against traditional softgels.Softgels have demonstrated significant advantages over a number of other delivery forms. As a popular form for multivitamins and minerals especially, this delivery system is ideal for incorporating active ingredients in their liquid form while still being taken as a solid dosage. Oil and wax-based ingredients, such as vitamin D, CoQ10, calcium, and certain combinations of omega-3-6-9 oils are especially suitable due to the unique hermetic design of softgels. From multi-ingredient formulations to herbal compounds, the versatility of softgels has allowed manufacturers to develop multiple formulas for each prospective consumer. Temperature stability, long shelf life, and solubility have made the softgel a long-time favorite for manufacturers, while its clean look and easy-to-swallow design has been preferred by consumers for solid dosage supplements.

However, softgels would have to be manufactured differently in order to allow vegetarians to reap the nutritional benefits. Traditional softgel shells are made from animal gelatin, which is derived from bovine, porcine, or piscine skin and bones. Composed of 90% protein, animal gelatin allows high bioavailability and rapid delivery, but is unacceptable to those with strict dietary restrictions on meat products. In comparison, early ventures into vegetarian softgels have been a difficult road. Few plant-based blends could mimic gelatin's properties just as successfully. Vegetarian shells, first comprised from starch, had numerous issues in performance and design, resulting in leaky capsules, size/fill limitations, and incompatibilities between the fill ingredients and the shell. It seemed that a true vegetarian softgel supplement would be out of reach.

However, recent advancements in dietary supplement manufacturing have pinpointed the right shell material that satisfies vegetarian regulations and the complex composition for active ingredients in the softgel delivery system. This material is derived from the red seaweed known as carrageenan, a staple ingredient in many food products that is used as a thickener and stabilizing agent. Composed of several polysaccharide chains, the kappa chain specifically within carrageenan has shown that it can exhibit the same properties as animal gelatin shells, with the significant advantage of being vegetarian-compliant. The kappa chain compound is a strong and rigid material, resulting in softgels that are both strong and durable, and can be manufactured in a variety of sizes with no sign of fragility.

Significant Vegetarian Advantages over Traditional Forms

Carrageenan-based softgels have also shown some advantages over animal gelatin in terms of properties, claims, and performance. Besides complying with animal-free dietary requirements, vegetarian softgel ingredients also comply with Halal and Kosher regulations, making them especially suitable for international markets. Vegetarian softgels also eliminate the possibility of animal-transmitted diseases, creating greater consumer trust in safety and compliance.

Traditional softgels provide heat stability for certain climates, and vegetarian softgels demonstrate these same properties. These heat-stable properties allows them to withstand high-temperature regions with no clumping or sticking during transport—an issue that animal-based softgels can still experience from time to time. They can also withstand humidity so that zero to very little deformation in shape occurs.

Vegetarian/vegan consumers can rely on vegetarian softgels to deliver the same nutritional values as animal-based softgel. The durability of the carrageenan-based softgel facilitates supreme bioavailability performance, allowing multiple active ingredients to be absorbed into the body. Many of the oil-based ingredients used for traditional softgels are still compatible with the vegetarian version, so that nutritional supplementation can still be possible for a wide number of consumers.

Vegetarian Softgel's Unique Manufacturing Methods

Though vegetarian softgels may deliver the same benefits as traditional softgels, the manufacturing process is vastly different. The properties that make vegetarian softgels so stable in heat and humidity can prove to be complex during the manufacturing process. This can result in longer lead times, as vegetarian gels will not be able to be manufactured at the same high speed of the animal gelatin, until technology catches up.

Despite the slower production, the costs for the vegetarian market are expected to decrease. Euromonitor reports that competition between vegetarian manufacturers will intensify as the years continue as more consumers hop on to the animal-free trend. In contrast, the cost of bone gelatin is increasing as much as 10%–15% annually, moving closer to vegetarian gelatin costs. For some manufacturers and distributors, the difference in cost for vegetarian softgels will be a small price to pay in exchange for obtaining a larger share of the vegetarian market and profit.

For prospective businesses, acquiring top vegetarian softgel manufacturers with the latest in technology and production methods is a necessity that should not be overlooked. With vegetarian softgel development as one of the most recent in dietary supplement manufacturing processes, a thorough audit over facilities, end products, and equipment is a must to ensure the quality of the supplements. It is best to search extensively for a vegetarian supplement manufacturer with multiple current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) certifications and little-to-no compliance violations from the FDA. An overview of regularly tested ingredients and manufacturing methods can be the key to ensuring high-quality private label vegetarian softgels that are ready for commercial production.

Taking Share in the Upcoming Vegetarian Lifestyle

With vegetarians as a growing market, it is prudent for distributors to partner with vegetarian softgel manufacturers that have the latest in equipment and production knowledge for this unique supplement.With numerous advantages of clear labeling, better thermal stability, and a great opportunity for marketing strategies, vegetarian softgels are expected to take a major role in nutritional supplementation for a growing market. Vegetarian options are already available in a number of sectors in the food industry, especially as consumers educate themselves on food safety issues and health concerns. The drive for health is promoted by government authorities as well, urging the public for better supplementation and a healthier diet. With around 40 million people in the United States alone now identified as vegetarian/vegan—and more in international countries—the future is looking bright for vegetarian softgels to become another staple supplement in the industry.

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