The recent discussions about vegetarian meat substitutes have shown that this is not necessarily true. Such is the case for HPMC hard capsules. They’re vegan, made from cellulose fiber, and therefore regarded as natural.
As soon as a product is labeled as "vegetarian" or "vegan," consumers immediately get the impression that there’s something inherently good or natural about it, or that it’s somehow better for their health. However, the recent discussions about vegetarian meat substitutes have shown that this is not necessarily true. Such is the case for HPMC hard capsules. They’re vegan, made from cellulose fiber, and therefore regarded as natural.
The use of HPMC hard capsules is not just a bonus for vegetarians and vegans, it's also great news for the many consumers who avoid animal products — as long as there are no perceived disadvantages compared with the animal-based original. However, as a conscientious consumer, it’s worth taking a look behind the all-natural image. Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC), also known as hypromellose, is produced from cellulose, a natural polymer and fiber, which is considered to be safe for human consumption.
However, says GELITA’s Oliver Wolf, the lines between consumer perception and reality can easily become blurred. This is particularly the case with so-called vegan products; the claim alone means that many people don’t feel the need to check the label. Yet, when it comes to capsules, for example, which are usually taken for health reasons, surely it’s vital to know exactly what they contain.
Hard capsules made from HPMC (hydroxypropyl methylcellulose) are a case in point. Yes, they are made from plant-derived cellulose and, as such, they’re suitable for those who want to avoid products of animal origin.
So far, so good for vegans and vegetarians. However, before it can be used, it must undergo a rigorous manufacturing process that involves the chemical alteration of the cellulose.
In short, various highly reactive and harmful substances are used in the process and must then be removed and disposed of after production. These include the volatile liquid propylene oxide (which is considered to be carcinogenic) and chloromethane gas.
So, the end product is indeed vegan. Whether it’s truly natural, however, is clearly debatable. Aside from being a natural polymer and fiber (considered to be safe for human consumption), HPMC is also an additive — otherwise known as E464.
When it comes to filling, the oxygen barrier of gelatin is significantly higher than that of HPMC, offering clear advantages for oxygen-sensitive ingredients. Conversely, HPMC capsules require additional antioxidants for such fillings.
By contrast, gelatin, also used for capsules, is a non-allergenic foodstuff as opposed to a food additive. There are, therefore, no restrictions on its use. It is an ingredient that has been used for more than a century and is obtained from by-products of the meat industry, such as pig and bovine skin, using an entirely natural hot water extraction technique. It is also more widely available than HPMC, thanks to the number of gelatin producers in the market.
The end product is vegan … but is it still natural? By contrast, gelatine has been the safe and trusted ingredient of choice for more than 100 years. And, as gelatine is a foodstuff, rather than a food additive, its use is neither limited nor restricted. It doesn’t even have an e-number. Furthermore, gelatin is GMO-free and sustainable, obtained from natural resources such as a pig or bovine skin (by-products from the meat industry) using gentle hot water extraction. And, although being sourced from animals, specific varieties of gelatine can be used to meet the strict religious requirements of Hindus and Muslims, for example; even Kosher versions can be supplied.
So, although it’s fair to say that both capsule solutions have their own merits, the real message here is that the importance of looking beyond the label should never be underestimated. Accordingly, gelatin hard capsules can be even suitable for believers. Do you want to tailor your capsules with gelatin? Don’t hesitate to contact us!