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What are Gelatin Capsules?

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  • Originally Written By: M. J. Memon
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2016
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Gelatin capsules are small shells made from gelatin that are used to enclose various medications and nutritional supplements. Their main goal is to make it easier for people to swallow pills, particularly those that are large or might otherwise be dry and difficult to get down the throat. Gelatin is typically very smooth and also resists reacting or mixing with other substances, so it’s a safe and usually quite inexpensive addition to many pills. It can also help manufacturers get an accurate and uniform dose into each pill. Fluid-filled capsules are usually made of just one piece of continuous gelatin covering, though solids may include two interlocking pieces. In either case, most capsules are made from “natural” gelatin, which often has its origins in pig, horse, and other animals’ bones and hooves. Synthetic and vegetable-based options are available in some areas, but not always — and not always inexpensively, either.

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Main Purpose

Capsules have advantages for both manufacturers and consumers. Drug and supplement makers often choose to coat their pills in gelatin because the covering is a good way to contain the active ingredients. This is particularly important for pills that are made of liquid or powder. Gelatin is nearly odorless and almost always tasteless, and it typically does not cause digestive problems. In most cases it won’t interact with other drugs, either, and it won’t usually break down or erode under normal environmental conditions. Once in the stomach it will typically dissolve rather quickly, which allows for an even release of the contents.

The coating can also make it easier to swallow pills that are either very large or that contain unpalatable or foul-tasting ingredients. Substances like fish oil, for instance, can be difficult to ingest, so putting them in a neutral-tasting gelatin capsule makes them easier for some people to get them down. Similarly, certain spices used as supplements, like cayenne pepper and cinnamon, can be easier to consume in capsule form.

Dosing Advantages

Another possible advantage of gelatin capsules is their uniform dosage. Commercial drug capsules are usually filled by machine and generally have the most accurate dosage of any manufacturing process. There are devices available through some retailers that allow the consumer to fill their own capsules at home, too. These can be useful if a large number of capsules must be filled on a regular basis, or if the contents contain finely ground powders.

Basic Construction

Most capsules come in one or two pieces. Single capsules are used to hold many commercial drugs, particularly those that are filled with liquid or measured powders. Solids may be coated with two pieces, which are often different colors: half of the pill may be red, for instance, and the other half white. This is more common for pills that are solids or pressed solids. Capsules make them smoother, but aren’t usually essential for holding anything in.

Empty two-piece capsules can sometimes also be purchased by consumers and filled with a more personalized combination of supplements, such as vitamins, minerals, and powdered nutrients. This is often less expensive than buying pre-filled capsules, and has the added advantage of allowing the consumer to customize pills to his or her personal needs.

How They’re Made

Gelatin is usually derived from the bones and hooves of pigs, horses, and cows, although it can also be made from other animals such as fish. This can make the capsules unsuitable for vegetarians and people who avoid consuming certain animals for religious reasons. Some people are also allergic to animal gelatin, and there have been some concerns that gelatin derived from cows may be infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, also known as “mad cow disease,” and this has led some people to worry that pills made with this sort of gelatin may carry a disease risk. Experts usually agree that the animal derivatives in gelatin capsules are too small to warrant serious concern when it comes to diseases, though.

Vegetarian capsules can be found in many places, though they aren't always available on every drug. Most are made from a type of cellulose, though other sources, such as the edible polymer called pullulan, can also be used. These are often more expensive than those made from animal products, though, and they may also be harder to find. Gelatin was traditionally the preferred form of capsule, since vegetarian capsules tend to be softer and have a shorter shelf life. Improvements in manufacturing have made vegetarian capsules more like their gelatin counterparts, however, and many researchers are continuing to look for more competitive synthetic alternatives.

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kylee07drg
Post 4

I love gelatin capsules. I have to take several kinds of medication regularly, and I hate the taste of regular pills. The bitterness lingers on my tongue long after I have swallowed them, even if I gulp them down quickly. It makes me a little sick at my stomach, and I have to go eat a cracker or something to get the taste out so I don’t vomit.

Several of my medicines are in gelatin capsule form. My blood pressure medication is inside a big, turquoise capsule that is easy to swallow regardless of its size.

One reason is because it is so smooth. It glides down my throat like butter, whereas bare pills tend to stick to my tongue and the roof of my mouth. Capsules don’t fight me going down.

burcidi
Post 3

@anamur-- Yea, you can't break up uniform gel capsules because the capsule is made around the medication. But there are also two piece gel capsules that are inserted into each other and the medication is in powder form inside.

You can actually take this capsule apart and remove some of the powder medication. It won't be precise and you might end up getting different doses that way, so it might not be desirable. But if a medication is only made in a two piece gel form, it's a way to lower the dose.

What I'm wondering is if the gelatin capsules are a problem for people with certain dietary restrictions. As far as I know, gelatin is made from animal fat, and a lot of times pig fat. Some religions don't allow the consumption of meat or pig. But I've never seen any information on labels about what the gelatin capsules are made from.

serenesurface
Post 2

@fify-- I agree with you about supplements in gel capsules. But I don't like medication in gel capsules because it's not possible to break it and take it in smaller doses.

I am really sensitive to medication. If I take the full dose, I experience so many side effects. That's why I usually take less than the recommendation and break the medication into halves, or even quarters if necessary. This is possible and really easy with tablets, they even have a line in the middle to make breaking easy.

But with gelatin capsules, there is no way of breaking it apart, so I have to take the full dose. It's not so much a problem when it's vitamins, but definitely a problem for medication.

fify
Post 1

I think gelatin capsules have a lot of advantages. I like buying vitamins and supplements in gelatin form because I agree that it's much easier to swallow and consume. Some gelatin capsules are actually very large, but they are also soft, so it's easier to wash down than tablets.

I do take fish oil capsules as an Omega 3 supplement and I would not be able to take it if it were not in gelatin form. These don't smell like anything even when they are kept out. I keep them in the fridge which I think maintains freshness longer.

I remember before these gelatin capsules came out, the only way to take fish oil was in liquid form

which made me sick even before putting it in my mouth. So I'm really grateful about gelatin capsules, they've definitely made taking supplements much easier.

I think gelatin capsules also melt very quickly in the stomach and the medicine enters the bloodstream faster doesn't it? I certainly feel that way when I take gel pain relievers. My headache goes away much faster with these than they do with tablet pain relievers.

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