“Consumers want good taste and convenience, and the dietary supplement industry is recognizing that,” says Joy Dubost, PhD, RD, a New York–based consultant for the nutrition industry. “People don’t have to pop a pill anymore.”
But she and others caution that with more portable, palatable products come trade-offs such as cost, storage, potency, and sugar content. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of these different delivery systems.
Perhaps the hottest delivery mode in the industry right now, the effervescent or powder supplement was made famous 30 years ago with Alacer’s Emergen-C, but seldom duplicated until recently.
“In the past, if you wanted something in powder form, it typically came in a big jar and you had to scoop it out with a spoon,” says Dan Murray, vice president of product development for supplement consulting firm Xsto Solutions in Morristown, N.J. “Now we are seeing dose-measured sachets and stick packs everywhere.”
According to Nutrition Business Journal, 15 percent of supplements sold in the U.S. between 2005 and 2008 were in powder or effervescent form, a percentage that has likely grown since. In March, NextFoods launched GoodBelly To Go Powder, a portable, freeze-dried probiotic that activates when it gets wet, so it doesn’t—like most probiotic products—have to be refrigerated. Nordic Naturals recently launched Omega-3 Effervescent, a water-soluble drink mix that delivers 500 mg of EPA/DHA and 1,200 mg D3 in portable, single-serve packets. And newcomer Vitalah now offers such unusual ingredients as superoxide dismutase, or SOD, (believed to increase the body’s own antioxidant production) and the circulation-boosting amino acid L-arginine—exclusively in effervescent form.
Upside: Powders are convenient, portable, can be added to drinks or yogurt, and can pack in a fairly big dose of active ingredient that might make for a “horse pill” in capsule or tablet form, says Murray. They tend to require less heat processing, which can compromise ingredient potency, and they tend to be easier to digest and better absorbed than many pills, says Watsonville, Calif.-based Vitalah Founder Lisa Lent.
Downside: Due to more complex packaging, they cost more and can be loaded with sugar. They are not ideal for a multivitamin, says Murray, because the various ingredients together tend to taste unpleasant (requiring more sugar to mask the flavor), and they aren’t well-suited for ingredients, like niacin, that need to be delivered in a “more sophisticated” time-release format. To address the sugar concern, some brands are using xylitol or other sweeteners. For instance, New Chapter’s EveryKid powdered multivitamin pouch is sweetened with berries and apples and contains no refined sugar.
Both children and adults averse to swallowing pills are fans of this candy-like supplement option. Popular offerings include: Nutrition Now Rhino children’s line, which features gummy vitamin D, omega-3, zinc, and echinacea supplements; Nordic Naturals tangerine-flavored Nordic Omega-3 Gummies; and Hero Nutritionals Slice of Life adult gummy-vitamin line.
“Gummies are a great solution for someone who just won’t take fish oil any other way,” says Joar Opheim, CEO of Watsonville, Calif.-based Nordic Naturals.
Upside: They taste good, and can be formed into fun shapes. And some pills may upset some people’s stomachs, whereas gummies often do not.
Downside: Because they are formulated with a syrup-like base and heat-processed, which can compromise ingredients, they often contain more sugar and less active ingredients than other options, Dubost says. They also tend to have a shorter shelf life than other delivery methods, Murray says. They’re not recommended for small children under 3 or elderly because they pose a choking hazard.
Liquid vitamins are particularly popular on the multivitamin and vitamin D front, with numerous companies unveiling highly concentrated, easily absorbed varieties in recent years.
Upside: For elderly consumers or small children who have trouble swallowing a pill, they provide an ideal, well-absorbed option. (With the American Academy of Pediatrics now advising parents to give 400 IUs of vitamin D3 supplements to newborns, many consumers are administering liquid varieties with an eyedropper.) They also tend to contain higher doses of active ingredients and less sugar than gummies. For instance, Country Life’s Liquid Dolphin Pals Multivitamin for children contains 2 grams of sugar per serving, versus 6 grams in its Dolphin Pals gummies. One-half teaspoon of Nordic Naturals’ Children’s DHA liquid contains 205 mg of EPA and 313 mg DHA versus 41 mg EPA and 27 mg DHA in its Nordic Omega 3 Gummies.
Downside: They aren’t as portable or as tasty as gummies and are often more perishable, meaning they may need to be refrigerated or contain preservatives, like alcohol.
U.K.–based Oxford Nutrascience recently unveiled a proprietary soft chew (crunchy on the outside, chewy in the middle), called Chewitab, that uses soluble fiber instead of sugar as its base and a lower heat in processing, allowing for the use of more delicate ingredients. It’s the latest innovation in the growing chewable tablets arena.
Upside: Chewable tablets can be taken without water, tend to taste better than conventional tablets, and—because they often come in a larger size—can pack in a high dose of an ingredient.
“Chewable tablets are great for people who are tired of taking pills, have difficulty swallowing, and are taking high-dose items, like calcium, fiber, or protein,” Murray says.
Downside: Can be high in sugar and require processing that may degrade ingredients.
Despite the growing body of alternatives, only 33 percent of consumers say they like to get their supplements in a form beside tablets and capsules, according to Natural Marketing Institute’s 2009 Supplements/OTC/Rx Database. Capsules, tablets, and soft gels remain their top-three choices. “If convenience isn’t a big issue and people don’t have an aversion to swallowing pills, I would generally recommend tablets or capsules,” Dubost says.
Downside: They taste bad, have to be taken with water, and don’t go over well with people who have to take a lot of other pills, according to Murray.
Upside: Tablets tend to be less expensive. Capsules are ideal for fats and oils and “challenging” ingredients that might degrade in the tablet manufacturing process or as they sit on the shelves, Murray says. Some new capsule technologies allow for time-release of ingredients and blending of ingredients, like powders and oils, that can’t normally go together.