Gel Caps, Soft Gels, Tablets: What’s the Difference?
Jules Walters • Nov 8, 2022
The world of supplements is full of jargon and confusing language, both for what’s inside the pill and even what’s in the wrapper.
So let’s shine some light on the wrapper. Dietary supplements produced in liquid form – as with pharmaceuticals – are typically contained in gelatin capsules. The encapsulation process and the materials used have barely changed in 200 years.
Two types of gelatin capsules
Gelatin capsules come in two basic types: hard gelatin to encapsulate solid substances, such as powder or small pellets, and soft gelatin for liquid or semi-solid fillings.
Gelatin protects its contents from exposure to the elements and makes it easier to swallow.
The wrapping is also important for how the active substance is absorbed and used by our bodies. For example, soft gels – a common delivery method for CoQ10 – are believed to promote better absorption than other wrappers.
In some cases, the composition of the gelatin shell will also be determined by where the product can be absorbed in the body. For example, a capsule that needs to reach the small intestine to be absorbed might have an acid-resistant (enteric) coating. That way, it’s not dissolved by stomach acid before its contents can get to work.
Gel caps, gelcaps and softgels
Gel caps, gelcaps and softgels are largely one and the same thing. Manufacturers have used these terms since the 1980s to describe gelatin capsules.
Gelatin capsules are made from by-products of the meat industry, a key component being collagen extracted from animal skin and bones.
Since the 1980s, vegan alternatives made from hypromellose (HPMC) have also been used. HPMC is derived from wood cellulose and widely used as an additive in the food industry, as it’s considered safe for human consumption.
As the vegan variety of shell is not made from gelatin, you may see them described on packaging as simply capsules, vegan capsules or veggie caps.
You might also see softgel products made from plant sources, such as tapioca starch or agar, which is derived from seaweed. You may see these products described as vegan or vegetarian softgels.
In most cases, hard and soft gelatin capsules are designed to be swallowed whole. Then it’s up to your digestive system to dissolve the shell and absorb the active ingredient.
The term tablet is made from powdered ingredients compressed to form a solid pill. The pills may have a thin protective coating, but no outer shell.
Most tablets are intended to be swallowed whole so they can be absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract. Some preparations, though, can be chewed and absorbed through the mouth directly into the bloodstream. You may see these labeled as fast-dissolve or quick-dissolve tablets.
I hope that clears a few things up!