Sorting Out Supplements: Tablets vs. Capsules vs. Liquids vs. Powders vs. Chewables

October 23rd, 2008

Supplements come in several formats, each with its advantages and drawbacks.

Why should you choose a tablet over a capsule? Are there any real advantages to using liquid supplements?

Tablets, capsules, softgels, liquids, chewables and powders; supplements come in all forms and that’s a good thing since it gives consumers a wide range of choices. But confusion persists about which forms are best with respect to absorption, materials, results and other factors.  Here’s the AllStarHealth guide to the benefits and drawbacks of each format.

Once upon a time, vitamins came in tablets or capsules and that was it. Then came improved tablets and capsules, then chewables, caplets, softgels, powders, and lozenges. With the consistent growth and expansion of the supplement industry, products are now available in almost too-wide a variety of physical forms.  Each of these has legitimate pros and cons, but it’s also clear to us that there’s a lot of confusion about what those pros and cons are among our customers.  Sometimes the physical format makes a difference in terms of results, more often it does not.

To help sort out the differences and help you find the products that suit you and your budget the best, we’ll describe the strengths and weaknesses of the different formats.

But first, we need to talk about absorption since that’s a key concern of supplement buyers with respect to the different formats. Many customers are concerned that products don’t break down or absorb quickly enough or completely enough.  We’ve heard 1000’s of variations of the same urban legends regarding tablets that pass out of the body unabsorbed (i.e. discovered by nursing home caretakers) or “vitamins that simply make expensive urine”.

While it may be true that tablets can pass through a person’s digestive system without breaking down, when this occurs it almost always reflects problem with something other that the pill itself.

It can happen, for example, when those with an already-weak or poorly-functioning digestive system (such the elderly or convalescents) take cheap drugstore or supermarket vitamins with an insufficient amount of solid food. High-quality name brand supplement makers actually invest considerable R&D resources to ensure their products are shelf-stable but break down completely and quickly, which is not an easy task from a formulation point-of-view.  Money must be spent and tablet space devoted to non-nutritive ingredients that only assist in tablet disintegration and absorption. For example, high quality multivitamins tablets usually contain tiny cellulose beadlets that expand when they absorb water, helping to break down the tablet within the stomach.  This is an absorption-enhancing feature name brand multis have but cheap supermarket multis lack.

Another way this can happen is when a person suffers a digestive illness or bout with food contamination. Both can greatly decrease transit time through the digestive tract, resulting in diarrhea or loose stools and sometimes, undissolved pills and tablets.

But outside of these scenarios, there’s really no basis to assert that a quality name-brand supplement tablet can not or will not break down and be completely absorbed when taken as directed.The technology of capsule and tablet manufacture has grown and evolved with the product-side of industry; considerably more goes into making a good multivitamin capsule or tablet than simply compressing ingredients in a machine. For example, name-brand and all reputable contract manufacturers test and re-test their products for acceptable dissolution times and thoroughness under stomach-like conditions.

Then there’s the old wives’ tale about the worthlessness of vitamins because “they just make expensive urine” or “you just pee them out” or other variations on the theme.

It’s not hard to see where this one came from. Anytime you take a multivitamin or a B complex, you’re going to get some vitamin B2 (riboflavin). B2 markedly changes the color or urine, usually making it much yellower.   Thus when someone visit the bathroom an hour or so after taking their supplement, it’s easy to see why they might conclude that their vitamins have been wasted and have not been absorbed.

But neither is the case.  Vitamins from supplements are absorbed the same way as vitamins from food; they have the same fate. No vitamin, whether from food or supplements, can go directly from the stomach to the bladder. The only way vitamins can change the appearance of urine is if they have been filtered from the bloodstream by the kidneys, and the only way that can occur is if the supplement has been absorbed from the digestive tract, and the only way that can occur is if the supplement breaks down easily or is otherwise manufactured to be bioavailable.

So, contrary to the myth,  when you see color changes in your urine associated with your supplement, it’s not evidence of it being wasted, it’s confirmation that it’s been broken down, absorbed and made available to body tissues.

One final point about absorption; faster isn’t necessarily better.  Many people spend the extra money for liquid supplements based on a belief that they will absorb faster than capsules or tablets. They might, but the time difference between complete absorption of liquids versus other forms, 20-30 minutes, does not amount to a noticeable advantage or a nutritional advantage with most supplements.  In fact, where higher potencies are concerned, slower absorption may be preferable to fast, sudden absorption. This is because there are limits to how fast and how much of a given nutrient can be absorbed per unit of time. When you overwhelm these absorption pathways, you do waste nutrients.  Slower is better when it comes to essential nutrients.  Many supplements are available in time-released format for this reason. For other types of supplements such as preworkout formulas or energy products the faster absorption makes a significant difference, and has led to market dominance of these formats.

The idea that faster absorption is better comes from, we think, advertisements about medications, both prescription and OTC. When it comes to medications, especially pain medication, faster definitely is better.  But it’s important to avoid applying drug-type standards to supplements. Both types of products may appear similar, but are as different as a farmer’s pesticides are to his fertilizer.

Now onto the different supplement formats.

Tablets are the most cost-effective supplements in general because they are less-expensive to manufacture than other formats.  Tablets allow the manufacturer to pack the most material into a given space.  From the manufacturing standpoint, tablets are the most shelf-stable choice and retain their potency over a longer time than liquids, powders and most capsules. Tablets can be offered in the widest range of sizes and shapes.   And as long as you stick with a name-brand product and take it as directed,  you needn’t worry about absorption issues with tablets. Drawbacks to tablets?  Large tablets can be hard for some people to swallow.  Tablets don’t offer the flexibility of dosing that liquids and powders do.

Caplets are simply tablets that have a smaller size and smoother-coating, making them as easy to swallow as capsules without giving up the other advantages of tablets. There are far fewer products offered in caplet form than tablets, however. In every other respect, caplets are similar to tablets.

Capsules refer to the familiar two-piece gelatin capsules that are widely used in supplements and some medications.  Their main advantages are their easy-to-swallow characteristics and their ability to break down quickly in the stomach, although, again, not to the point that there’s any nutritional advantage.  Vegetarian capsules, of which VegiCaps are the best-known brand, are a gelatin-free alternative rapidly gaining popularity as customers become more hesitant to consume meat by-products like gelatin.  Some people like the fact that they can open up capsules and, using all or part of its powdered contents, mix the nutrients into applesauce or a protein shake, for example.  That can be a great aid to children or others who have difficulty swallowing pills. The drawbacks of capsules? They cost considerably more than tablets. They have significant space and potency limitations since their powdered contents cannot be compressed to a significant degree.  Since capsules are not air-tight, their shelf-life is shorter than tablets. They are not suited to liquid or oil-based nutrients either unless special, expensive encapsulation techniques and products are used.

Softgels are one-piece gelatin capsules almost exclusively used for liquid or oil-based formulas. Although vegetarian softgels have been introduced to the market, adoption has been slow and as of this writing, gelatin softgels are still virtually the only type you’re likely to come across when supplement shopping.  Because of their smooth contour and shape, softgels are very easy-to-swallow regardless of size. They also offer superior shelf-life profiles to capsules, liquids and powders since they are completely sealed and air-tight. But like tablets, you don’t have any flexibility with the dose of softgels since they can’t be neatly broken or opened up. You can use more softgels or fewer softgels, but that’s it.  Softgel manufacture is specialized and considerably more expensive than tablets or capsules, and softgel product pricing tends to reflect that.

Chewables need no explanation. But they always cost more on a dollars-per-milligram basis and tend to be lower potency when compared to comparable products in tablet and capsule form. They also usually have some sugar and flavorings added, which many health-conscious people strenuously try to avoid. So chewables are best-reserved for children or those people who really can’t swallow tablets or capsules.

Powders can be very cost-effective on a dollars-per-nutrient basis, but are also the least convenient to use, since they must be mixed into a liquid, shake or a food. Powders do offer great flexibility with dosing – you can make much finer adjustments to the dose than with tablets and capsules.  For supplements taken in gram quantities such as creatine, protein and glutamine, powders are much, much more practical. For example, a typical 5-gram serving of creatine is easy to take; a small scoop of tasteless powder mixed in with water or juice. But to get that same dose with capsules, you’d need 10 x 500 mg capsules or 5 x extra-large 1g capsules.

Liquid supplements. Customers often seek out liquid supplements based on their belief that liquid supplements absorb faster and are therefore better than other forms. They might, but, again, this difference is not great enough to amount to a noticeable or significant nutritional difference, so that’s not really a great reason to go liquid.  And as we’ve said, when it comes to essential nutrients, slower absorption may be better. Liquids do offer a lot of flexibility with dosing and are very easy for most people to take. Drawbacks? They are always more expensive on a dollars-per-nutrient basis and their shelf life is shorter than with other formats. They are heavier to transport. They’re not portable like capsules and tablets. They often require refrigeration.  Depending on the how it’s made, a liquid supplements often have problems with ingredients settling to the bottom between uses. Even when the bottle is shaken before each use,  dispersion of ingredients is imprecise and less consistent than with capsule and tablet products.

So as you can see, there is no one perfect format.  It really depends on the supplement and the person taking it. But by knowing the pros and cons of each, it’s easy to zero in on which is best.

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