Herb & Nutritional Supplements: What is That Capsule Made From?

Photo of Sharol Tilgner
Photo of empty vegetarian capsules in a pretty dish.

Herbal and nutritional supplements are often consumed as capsules. Do you ever wonder what that capsule is made from? Here is the skinny on those substances used most often. At the end, I tell you how I ingest powdered herbs, and give you other choices of methods used to take herbs.

Gelatin capsule

This is the capsule you see most often on the market. Derived from hydrolysis of collagen extracted from animal  connective tissue. It is mostly from bones and skin of cattle, and pigs. Usually capsules are made from beef gelatin. There are three main stages to making gelatin. They are pretreatment with an acid (usually acetic acid) or an alkali, extraction of the gelatin and purification and drying. They are of course not appropriate for vegetarians or for people concerned about eating byproducts of animals that have eaten genetically modified food or people concerned about Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (human form of Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE) Mad Cow disease).


OceanCaps, Caplique

These capsules are being made from what they are calling fish gelatin (skin, bones and fins) . The capsugel website lists OceanCaps as being made from farmed fish. I called Douglas Labs and they said their Caplique is also made from farmed fish. Tilapia is the fish usually used. I am sure you realize that farmed fish flesh is not healthy for you. It usually contains a higher level of toxins than wild fish and they do not contain the healthy essential fatty acids found in the wild, cold water fish. I can't find research on the level of toxins in the fish gelatin but I am a bit concerned about it and I don't like supporting the farmed fish industry. That being said, there is  that concern about the BSE possibility in the standard gelatin. This concern might make a person choose a fish gelatin capsule over the standard bovine/porcine gelatin capsule. The processing to produce fish gelatin is similar to mammalian gelatin although there are often some differences to get similar gel properties. Sometimes additional enzymes are used or different salts to get a better gelatin.

This type of capsule is being used to encapsulate many of the fish oils now. I suggest you take your fish oil in liquid form, not capsule form. It should also be refrigerated. For more details on farmed fish and healthy types of fish oils go to this article on Fish Oil Capsules.

Vegetarian Capsules

Vcaps, and other vegetarian caps are made from hypromellose.  (AKA hydroxy propyl methyl cellulose or HPMC) Hypromellose is made from wood pulp. Pulp can be manufactured using mechanical, semi-chemical or fully chemical methods.  I asked Capsugel which method was used to make their Vcaps.  After repetatively being told for three weeks they would get back to me soon, I gave up on them ever really telling me. From what I can see most wood pulp is usually manufactured in China. Knowing that makes me more concerned. Although hypromellose is considered non-toxic, in reality it has not been studied for ingestion.   These are starch-free, gluten-free and preservative-free, and meet the strict dietary needs of vegetarians. They are also Kosher and Halal certified.

Softgel type caps

These usually consist of  a gelatin or starch or carageenan. Carrageenan is the hydrocolloid obtained by extraction with water or aqueous alkali, from some members of the class Rhodophyceae(red seaweeds), and a plasticiser.  The plasticiser may be glycerin and or sorbitol.


Here is the problem I have always had with these sofgel types. The product inside is heated to some degree by the process of the outside shell being sealed around the ingredients and depending on the amount of heat and the product, this may damage the ingredients in the softgel.


Liquid capsules

The capsule may be gelatin or hydroxypropyl methylcellulose. Methylcellulose is plant fiber and often from wood pulp like the Vcaps listed above. They require no binders, fillers, plasticisers used in  softgels tablets and some other capsules. They dissolve better than softgels.


How I Take Powdered Herbs

I  simply put the dose of powder on a spoon and swallow followed by drinking water. Be careful not to inhale powders while swallowing. This bypasses the need for packaging of the herb. Powdered herb is less expensive than encapsulated herbs which is nice if you are trying to save money. You can do this with many nutritional products too if you can find the powders for sale. I realize not everyone can take powders. People with trouble swallowing would be bothered. Children will not like the taste and may not be able to do it. Elders may also have trouble. If you can take powders easily, the spoon and water methods works great. However, if you have some reason that capsules work better for you, choose products from companies that use capsules you feel OK ingesting. Many companies have new capsules in the wings waiting to be birthed. Perhaps something better will appear soon.


How I take oils

I only use liquid nutritional oils packaged in bottles. Not only do I bypass the packaging problem of capsules, but I can smell the oil to see if it is rancid this way. Many of the oils are rancid unless they used refrigeration, or chemicals to keep them from oxidizing in the bottle. The encapsulation process itself can heat up the oil and cause it to go rancid quicker.

Read the details on how fish oil capsules are made using farmed fish. "Fish Oil Capsules"

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