The future of softgels: reinventing a supplement staple with plant-power

Published: 6-Nov-2023

Consumer demand for vegetarian and vegan supplements has steadily increased during the past 5 years, with as many as 45% of consumers saying that they would like to see more plant-based vitamin, mineral and dietary supplement products(1). Becca Putans, Lead Scientist R&D, Pharma Solutions, at IFF, reports

Although vegan-friendly formulations are becoming more popular in a variety of delivery formats, the shift is particularly prominent with hard capsules, softgels and gummy formats.

And whereas gummies may have seen a rapid ascendance during the past 5 years, hard capsules and softgels remain the most common delivery systems. These formats are highly effective at dispensing controlled doses, but many still contain animal-based ingredients such as gelatine.

Manufacturers may want to adapt conventional formulations to plant-based ones, but this frequently poses difficulties as introducing alternate ingredients can negatively impact functionality.

However, a new generation of technologies to support the development of vegan and clean-label formulations, including carrageenan-free solutions, has arrived.

These novel technologies can be easily implemented without disrupting existing production processes or compromising the performance and quality required of dosage forms. 

Current state of softgels

Although hard capsules and softgels generally dominate the vitamins and dietary supplements market, softgels offer distinct and unique advantages. This versatile delivery system can promote compliance as it has many user-friendly characteristics.

Softgels are typically easy to swallow, mask unpleasant tastes or odours, support high doses and can enhance the bioavailability of ingredients such as curcumin, lycopene and cannabidiol.

And whereas this format was traditionally made from gelatine, vegan formulations have been gaining popularity in response to market demand — despite the challenges they typically pose for manufacturers.

Transitioning from gelatine to plant-based softgels may pose challenges in terms of higher viscosities, lower encapsulation rates and weaker seals in vegan gel masses.

However, new technologies have arisen in tandem with rising consumer demand such that novel softgels can help manufacturers to balance functionality with quality, all while meeting the plant-based trend. 

One such technology is a vegan softgel shell-forming system based on carrageenan, a seaweed derivative that has been the primary encapsulation system for the past two decades.2

Carrageenan’s properties vary depending on its type … and not all forms are created equal.

Some varieties produce strong but brittle films, others can be weak but elastic; yet, specially tailored types improve upon other systems by forming highly elastic — and tough — films, which are ideally suited for softgel encapsulation.

These tailored technologies provide faster encapsulation rates as well as higher manufacturing efficiencies and superior seals to enable the production of plant-based softgels of enhanced quality.

The elasticity of the films can accommodate fill injection expansion, resulting in a stronger capsule seal than other vegan alternatives; this, in turn, supports increased resistance to puncturing or bursting during storage and handling. 

With the improvement in seal strength, vegan systems run at near gelatine conditions, resulting in higher outputs and fewer rejected capsules, which saves manufacturers money and time during production.

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Vegan capsule systems differ from gelatine processing as they have a higher viscosity and, therefore, require higher processing temperatures. However, manufacturers can successfully implement these new requirements by collaborating with an experienced vegan ingredient supplier.

With proper support in terms of ingredient mixing and hydration, the transition from gelatine to plant-based alternatives can be made significantly smoother.

Next-generation technologies for plant-based, clean label softgels 

The softgel market is competitive, with brands vying for limited shelf space as consumer preferences continuously evolve. Beyond the demand for plant-based products, growing interest in cleaner labels compels manufacturers to reformulate vegan supplements without carrageenan.

As such, innovative vegan shell formers have been developed that are pectin-based to meet a carrageenan-free label claim. 

Pectin is ideal for use in clean label and vegan products, as this stable ingredient is typically recognised by consumers as a wholesome and safe product of natural origin.

Like carrageenan technologies, pectin provides easy implementation for manufacturers as it is compatible with the equipment used for gelatine softgels and does not require the use of throughput-limiting die rolls.

Like carrageenan versions, pectin soft capsules enable specialised fills too. Their greater thermal stability (compared with gelatine) means that more viscous, concentrated materials can be used as the fill can be heated without melting the capsule shell.

This also supports e-commerce, as the capsules better withstand shipping and storage heat and humidity.

The future of softgels: reinventing a supplement staple with plant-power

Technological advances that support the development of plant-based and clean-label products demonstrate that brand owners, fill manufacturers, capsule manufacturers and ingredient suppliers can successfully innovate together to meet evolving consumer desires and needs. 

Formulating for the future

Many dietary supplement manufacturers are looking to address the growing consumer preference for plant-based dietary supplement products with clean-label options.

Happily, the ascension of novel gelatine- and carrageenan-free technologies that perform like conventional ingredients is helping manufacturers to develop new products that meet consumer needs and stand out in the market. 

To develop products that perform like existing formulations and do not require manufacturing overhauls, it’s critical to choose an experienced supplier of technology and shell-forming material, such as IFF.

Experienced ingredient suppliers will help manufacturers to identify the right ingredients to solve formulation or processing challenges and achieve optimal functionality — with minimal changes to standard softgel processes and equipment.

Not only will the right vegan softgel technology help to meet consumer demands for plant-based and clean-label options, it also allows for excellent manufacturing efficiency yield.

This means that manufacturers can meet their sustainability goals while also addressing consumer preferences for environmentally friendly dietary supplement options. 


  1. Mintel, Nutrition Watch: Plant-Based Supplements (2022):
  2. E.M. Pacheco-Quito, R. Ruiz-Caro and M.D. Veiga, “Carrageenan: Drug Delivery Systems and Other Biomedical Applications,” Mar. Drugs 18(11), 583 (2020).

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