Delivery Systems Head into the Future

The classics are getting revamped, and new offerings are struggling to keep up with demand. Here’s what’s challenging and what’s trending.

“The delivery systems market—and particularly the technology that drives it—is almost unrecognizable to someone from our industry, even compared to just 20 years ago,” Lindsey Toth, Director, Global Marketing, Lonza Capsules & Health Ingredients, tells WholeFoods Magazine. “Innovation in the space is driven by several trends, from the growing market for probiotics and botanical supplements to the consumer preference for clean label and more natural or plant-based products. As such, delivery systems have also been elevated in the consumer mindset and into their purchasing decisions. In fact, 70% of U.S. consumers say dosage form matters to them when choosing their supplement or medicines.”

There are several things to take into account when choosing a delivery system, shares Steve Holtby, President & CEO, Soft Gel Technologies, Inc. (SGTI). “Finished product manufacturers strive to provide consumers with dietary supplements that offer optimum health and value,” he explains. “In order to achieve these two goals, the appropriate delivery system must be selected. Of course, when determining whether to formulate in a tablet, capsule, or softgel, consumer preference for vegetarian ingredients, pill size, and dosing compliance are important issues to ponder. However, the dosage form chosen will have a significant impact on bioavailability, and should be one of the major considerations when selecting a particular delivery system. Supplement effectiveness is highly dependent on how the nutrients are delivered to the body, for example bioavailability.”

Another important factor: ease of formulation. Holtby continues: “Liquids—drinks, tinctures—and powder blends are straightforward and easy in a general sense. Softgels represent a significant challenge over tablets and two-piece capsules. Licaps (liquid-filled 2-piece capsules) are considered even more difficult. Gummies require specific formulations and ratios of core ingredients, and often aren’t able to include high dosages of active ingredients if they want the product to have a pleasant taste.”

Taking these factors into account, however, there are still distinct trends in this space. The overarching direction? People want options beyond pills. “I think our partners are seeing the same trends we’re observing in E-commerce data: that consumers are pill and powder fatigued,” says Ryan Walker, Ph.D., Product Development Director, Innovative Labs.

Where possible, these pill- and powder-fatigued customers are moving to gummies, according to Dan Harari, Head of Business Development at ClearCut Analytics, a SPINS company. Harari gave the presentation “Market Trends Shaping the Future of Immunity Supplements” at the Naturally Informed event Immunity: Mastering the Market, which took place March 1-2, 2022. In his presentation, Harari revealed top Amazon trends in the immunity market—trends show up on Amazon 18 months before they hit natural retailer shelves, making this data useful for predicting where demand is heading. Most immunity supplements, he noted, are down year-over-year, because the past two years have seen such massive and unsustainable growth; therefore, delivery forms are mostly also down, with some exceptions. In immunity complex products, capsules are the only form showing growth, but elsewhere, gummies are doing very well. In vitamin D, gummies are showing the highest growth; gummies have the highest market share in elderberry; and gummies are the only delivery system growing at all when it comes to zinc.

According to Harari, we are far from peak gummy. “Gummies are under-represented everywhere,” he said. “A lot of the time, it’s not because the demand isn’t there, it’s because the supply isn’t there. There would be a lot more gummies and a lot more gummy sales if the manufacturing lines were able to meet the capacity needed by some of these brands. Instead of discounting the growth, I would add to the growth or the sales numbers that you would see in any category where gummies are viable, because you look at other categories like ashwagandha—very few gummies in there, but they’re the fastest growing, and very few brands are able to manufacture gummies today.” Gummies are the best bet for growth, he concluded, if you can find someone to make the products for you. This talk (and all sessions on immunity, science and more) is available on-demand, free, at www.NaturallyInformed.net.

Gummies aren’t the only pill alternative in demand. Yellow Emperor, a liquid contract manufacturer, is seeing orders increase, according to Sarah Vito, the company’s Director of Business Development. “The interest in alternatives to tablets or capsules is clearly on the rise as we have witnessed gummies all but take over shelf space. In addition, there are more conversations and concerns around bioavailability of ingredients in pills and capsules. Many of our customers market the benefit of liquids as their immediate absorption into the bloodstream.”

Consumers also are looking for their supplements to do double-duty, says Brad Baum, Co-founder, Llama Naturals. “People increasingly prefer to get their vitamins and nutrients from forms that meet additional needs—such as taste, hunger, thirst, etc., rather than just taking a pill. As a result, the market is evolving towards more functional and fortified food and beverages—gummies, snacks, drinks, shots, and so on. Of course, existing systems will continue to have demand, but there are many more options now.”

Brands are responding to these trends, Dr. Walker says: “One common request from our partners over the past year is the conversion of existing powder, capsule, pill, or dissolvable tablet products into single serve sachets or shots in convenient single serve packaging. We are able to execute these form factor conversions due to our skilled formulation team that can make great-tasting finished liquid products containing challenging raw materials having astringent, bitter, or complex flavor profiles.”

However, Dr. Walker notes, it’s not always easy to convert products one-to-one from a pill or powder to a shot or tablet. “Converting supplements from powder, capsule, and pill delivery forms pose a challenge in that our partners may want to keep the same label claims, which is not always possible. This may be due to active and inactive component solubility, flavor, or stability in water- and oil-based delivery systems. So, what is possible in dry delivery systems versus liquid applications requires coaching our partners and recommending minor formula adjustments. We critically evaluate each formula and have honest discussions with our partners early in the development process and find solutions supported by data.”

All that said, there’s still plenty of demand for traditional formats, notes Toth. “In terms of consumer preference for delivery systems, novel forms such as gummies are growing in popularity, yet proprietary Lonza research shows that capsules continue to be king worldwide. In fact, capsules are preferred by 44% of consumers globally—that’s 132% higher than the preference for softgels and 5% higher than tablets. Capsules also offer a lot of flexibility as a dosage form, making product innovation easily accessible for brands while delivering on consumer non-negotiables like convenience, swallowability, and efficacy.” Clearly, gummies being on the rise doesn’t make other choices a bad bet.

Setting Expectations

The best way to make formulation easy and successful for all parties? Have reasonable expectations, and communicate. “There tends to be a misconception about the amount of time it takes to manufacture a product from the time an order is placed,” Holtby says. “Part of the process includes testing on incoming raw materials and the final finished product. This could take one to two weeks, depending on the ingredient. Front- and back-end testing, on average, takes about two weeks. You also have to consider the amount of time it takes to procure raw materials and do the manufacturing itself, both of which contribute to when a product will be complete. It’s helpful to have the supplement brand provide an early and accurate forecast, so that raw materials can be ordered, tested, verified, released and ready for production without delay. Effective communication is a big factor in developing a successful working relationship with our customers. More specifically, clearly articulated requests are important to a successful partnership. It is imperative for a customer to establish clear priorities that meet the company’s needs. While many customers discuss product integrity (effective quantities of safe, clinically proven, and ethically obtained ingredients), other factors, such as product price, delivery timelines, and batch sizes, are sometimes more critical. The information requested by the customer at the beginning of discussions is answered clearly by SGTI—a great deal of time is spent advising customers what is and is not realistic. We strive to understand what issues are most important to a prospective customer from which the business proposal is built to encompass these key motivating factors. One advantage of having a skilled and experienced sales team, like ours, is that it promotes clarity and understanding of a customer’s expectations.”

Formats: Uses, Pros, and Cons

Different formats offer different challenges, and different possibilities. Our experts have outlined a few below.

Capsules. “From dietary or lifestyle preferences—like plant-based or vegan—to the technical needs of the ingredients being used—like moisture and oxygen sensitivity, bioavailability needs, or taste and odor masking—there is a capsule technology out there to fit the bill,” says Toth. That said, she explains that that technology is the result of constant innovation. “Take, for example, a common delivery challenge—probiotics,” Toth continues. “In these supplements, it’s crucial to protect highly sensitive probiotic ingredients as they pass through the stomach’s acidic environment. Probiotics are also hygroscopic and need protection from early activation, which may be triggered by humidity or the water content of the delivery system during storage. Capsugel DRcaps designed release capsules produced by Lonza were specifically developed to ensure the survival of living probiotics as they pass through the acidic conditions of the stomach, supporting maximum absorption in the intestine while also optimizing shelf life.”

There are also innovations in capsule material. “Plant-based capsule materials are on the rise to meet consumer demand,” Toth explains. “To meet this need, popular polymer options include hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC)—found in trees—and pullulan, a compound resulting from a natural tapioca fermentation process. A great deal of technical design work has gone into plant-based capsules to ensure they perform similarly to their animal-origin counterparts. These alternative capsule polymers also add functionality to help solve formulation challenges. Lonza’s Capsugel Vcaps Plus HPMC capsules offer added protection for moisture-sensitive ingredients. Meanwhile, Capsugel Plantcaps pullulan-based capsules are ideal for protecting oxygen-sensitive ingredients, provide a rapid release profile, and are the ultimate dosage form for clean label formulas, even enabling organic labeling in the U.S. with the right ingredients.”

Functional foods. This space offers some potential difficulties: Holtby points to the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, which “clearly states that a dietary supplement is intended for ingestion and may not resemble a food or meal replacement,” although he notes that energy and protein bars have been around for a while.

The line here may soon be blurred further, or outright disappear: “35% of health and wellness products are fortified or functional food & beverage—with a market value of $776 billion in 2020,” says Brittany Lisanti, Global Project Manager and Team Lead at IFF Health, citing a Euromonitor report. “The line between functional F&B and supplements continues to blur as brand owners deliver their health bolstering ingredients in new, traditionally food-like ways. Consumer segments such as children, the elderly, or people following specific lifestyle diets have different nutritional needs—leaving more space for brand owners to personalize. For children’s digestive health, formulating a probiotic into a nutritious bar format is likely to delight the consumer and drive repurchase. One example: brand owners can try formulating HOWARU Kids Digestive Health (B. lactis HN019) into a kid-friendly bar to support digestive health. Our HOWARU Calm has been demonstrated in a clinical trial to significantly reduce consumers’ perceived stress. Why not deliver it in sweet chocolate so consumers can have a dessert they feel good about? Plus, combining HOWARU Calm with soy phosphatidylserine, Sharp PS, can maximize the end-product benefit with its cognitive enhancing properties—making for an even better chocolate treat.” IFF has been investing in research and product formulation, in order to be able to offer probiotics in food, in spite of the stability issues, and is now able to offer probiotic chocolate bars, RTD beverages, and gummies, providing more opportunity in the functional food space.

Gummies. “Gummies have been dominating for a while, and saw 23% growth in sales in 2021,” shares Lisanti. “However, brand success means staying focused on what’s next. Customers can tap into our non-animal-based alternative to gelatin to support plant-based label messaging, while our sweetening systems enable low-sugar and sugar-free claims.”

Indeed, the main complaint about gummies is typically that they’re high-sugar. Baum says that Llama Naturals worked to resolve that. “We spent about 24 months creating and perfecting our line of whole-fruit gummy vitamins that use whole fruit purees instead of sugars and syrups. Our low-heat processing method retains nutrients and fruit flavor so that we don’t have to add sugars and sweeteners to create a tasty gummy that customers want. Given consumers are buying a health-product, I think it’s natural that they would prefer a healthier gummy option, as long as it tastes good of course.”

Liquids. This category is facing a major shift in the tincture space—it’s going sober. “Yellow Emperor uses traditional methods to manufacture herbal dietary supplements—tinctures, decoctions, distillation, etc.,” shares Vito. “While we manufacture all types of liquids including vitamins and amino acids, the larger challenges we face are in herbal product manufacturing. Specifically, the most common question we are asked is, ‘Can you make it alcohol free?’ Of course, the answer is yes. At Yellow Emperor, we offer alcohol-free processing of herbs to manufacture products marketed to children or those who are pregnant or have allergies. Whatever the reason is for wanting an alcohol-free dietary supplement, we have been able to successfully formulate something for the customers we work with—adding more sales to their line. In fact, many of our customers have discontinued the alcohol-based products they previously sold because the alcohol-free version quickly outperformed the former. We even had one customer launch both versions at the same time, very excited for the strong alcohol-based version to make waves, only to come back to us a few months later for another order of the alcohol-free version because consumers preferred it.”

Also in this category: Wellness shots. Lisanti notes that these haven’t yet made a major splash, but that they tap into multiple trends—holistic health, beverages, and convenience. “They have the potential to take off in 2022 and can deliver immune boosting ingredients like probiotic strain HOWARU Protect or the well-known botanical echinacea,” she suggests.

Ingredient Opportunities

The delivery systems are changing—and so are the ingredients they deliver. One example: Paragon Labs’ Matt Kaufman suggests that we’ll soon be seeing vitamin innovations. “Although it is not new technology, there seems to be a growing market appeal in liposomal vitamins that are shown to have better absorption than generic vitamins. Liposomal vitamins are more costly than generic, but consumers focused on health and wellness are often open to paying a premium for higher-quality product.”

Another example: probiotics. IFF’s Brittany Lisanti notes that probiotic formulation difficulties go beyond concerns about heating: “Probiotics are living organisms and must remain in a state of suspended animation before consumption, which is done through processes like freeze drying. In this state, they’re alive, but don’t grow or utilize any nutrients. Since water can activate the organisms, formulators should consider drying ingredients with a high moisture content prior to blending. These processes ensure the probiotic reaches consumers in its most active, optimal form. When formulating a probiotic into a certain delivery format, experts must analyze whether any ingredient contains antagonistic properties. In a very dry form, such as powders, certain ingredients that you may expect to have antagonistic effects, might not. However, forms that are more moisture inherent, like ready-to-drink beverages, could activate interactions, making antagonistic properties more prevalent. In addition, flavors are something to consider when adding to a probiotic blend. At IFF, we have seen flavors have an inhibitory effect immediately, and we’ve seen flavor affect the long-term stability. Overall, it takes a wealth of experience and knowledge to deliver probiotics in new formats. Formulators should take heed to confirm this information with any potential supplier, otherwise they risk developing products that won’t deliver the promised benefits.”

Whole fruit powders, too, are seeing innovation for easy delivery. “One challenge formulators may face when working with the tablet delivery system is the ‘flowability’ of the freeze-dried powders,” says Itzel Rincon, Chaucer. “In order to solve this challenge, we offer powders in different sizes or that can be used in these supplement applications, especially capsules where fine powders can work easily. For beverage manufacturers offering nutritional powder drinks, if the particle size is too fine or too big, it can make dissolving difficult and create unpleasant textures. To overcome this issue, we offer particle sizes and granules from 50 mesh powder to a 1-5 mm granule, ideal for any type of drink formulation and easy to mix with a simple shake of a bottle. Another solution we have created is to replace juice concentrates with freeze dried fruit powders in standard nutritional gummy formulations. This increases the fruit content and provides an intense flavor and color experience—the same as if you bit into a fresh, just-picked piece of fruit. The challenge is to find balance in the formulation to replace a concentrate with a dried ingredient and we have the expertise to help formulators do it.”

Powders. “Flavored powders and chewable tablets are growing due to the increasing amount of flavoring ingredients that can turn a formula that used to taste very poor into something that is palatable,” says Matt Kaufman, Business Development Manager, Paragon Laboratories. “What is interesting about powder is that individuals have different flavor preferences. There is not one size fits all, as some people are perfectly okay with bitter tasting powders while others prefer sugar-tasting formulas.”

Drink sachets, in particular, have lots of potential. “Drink sachets are also known for their convenience in the nutritious beverage space, and have the potential to deliver enticing aromas and unforgettable tastes,” says Lisanti. “For example, we showcased an Immune-boosting Peach Mango Stick Pack product sample at the recent Expo West tradeshow. It featured an exciting combination of HOWARU Protect Adult (B. lactis BI-04), POWDERPURE Pure Source Vitamin Blend, POWDERPURE Pure Source Acerola Cherry, and Tastepoint Natural Flavors.”

Powders also offer growth in a different direction: the whole foods direction. Itzel Rincon, Sales and NPI Director, Americas, at Chaucer Foods, explains why: “Health and wellness trends continue to gain consumer interest, yet many consumers aren’t able to set aside the necessary time to plan and make meals where they can consume all of their vital daily nutrients. It can also be difficult to afford healthier food options, especially for lower income households, and more consumers are on-the-go than ever before. As a result, consumers are increasingly looking for convenient, affordable and functional supplements to meet their wellness goals. Instead of the traditional vitamin, mineral or supplement options, researchers found that global consumers are looking for a supplement made with natural ingredients. “

Rincon is backed by data. She tells WholeFoods: “Mintel found that 55% of adult consumers would prefer to get their necessary nutrients from nutritious foods. This increased interest in naturally sourced VMS products, has resulted in formulators sprinkling in natural fruit and vegetable powders within the products to achieve sufficient micronutrient standards. The freeze-drying processes that Chaucer’s fruits and vegetables go through allows them to retain all of their nutrients while being shelf-stable—creating the perfect addition to a consumer’s daily multi-vitamin supplement.”

Another reason why this might interest people? Claims. For instance, just recently, FDA approved a Qualified Health Claim for cranberry: Products that contain a daily serving of 500mg whole fruit cranberry can now claim to reduce risk of urinary tract infections. Fruit d’Or has since launched two whole fruit cranberry powders, formulated for use in softgels and gummies without concern about leakage.

Softgels. Softgels have a niche, and they fit it well. “There are situations in which softgels are not an optimal format,” acknowledges Holtby. “In some cases, there may be space limitations for the formula (getting ample quantities of protein, for example) or interactions between raw materials (such as the effect of very low pH on a gelatin shell). Thus, it is important to consider both the physical and chemical properties of a formula. Although they can incorporate powders, softgels require oil-based fills, and are perfect to encapsulate oils and fat-soluble ingredients. Ingredients that are unstable with water contact may not be appropriate for softgel encapsulation, as the gelatin shell contains water. Ingredients in an aqueous base, or that contain significant water content, may also not be appropriate for softgel encapsulation. Softgel finished dosage forms are not suitable for hygroscopic ingredients due to moisture migration from the wet capsule shell into its fill. Lost moisture from the shell creates brittleness, which makes the softgel fragile and can lead to cracking and leaking of the fill material.”

Looking to situations where softgels are the ideal format, Holtby explains: “Oil-based ingredients in their natural state don’t work well in tablets, capsules, gummies, or water-based drinks. These often need to be converted into water-dispersible or dried forms. These processes can allow them to be in a powder form, but typically reduce the original potency of the material significantly. Oxygen-sensitive components should also not be used in tablets or 2-piece capsules, as there is exposure to air. Softgels, once the materials are encapsulated, prevent further oxygen exposure and can be an optimal delivery form.” And while oil-based ingredients are ideal, Holtby notes that softgels can, in fact, be used with other materials: “A high-end softgel encapsulator, like Soft Gel Technologies, Inc. with an excellent R&D staff, can often solve problems with hydrophilic materials. This is done by creating fine paste suspensions that involve a mixture of paste powders suspended in carrier oils. Suspensions enable hydrophilic nutrients to be encapsulated into soft gelatin capsules. It’s a fine balancing act between powder and liquid in the soft gel.”

Considering other challenges faced by softgels, Holtby points to employee training as a top concern. “Softgel production is a very unique and complicated process; not every manufacturer can do it. Tablets and two-piece capsules are much easier to manufacture than soft gelatin capsules. One of the challenges of making softgels is that the operators who run the encapsulation machine have to be well-trained and competent to learn the techniques for a smooth and efficient operation. The manufacturing process of making high-quality softgel capsules implicates the use of sophisticated technology. During the rotary die process, the gelatin temperature, ribbon thickness, seam width, and fill quantity all need to be monitored and controlled. It involves high precision and requires constant oversight; inaccuracies make production more costly.”

The final word: Everything has its place. “Once, tablets were ideal, due to how many healthy—but poor-tasting—ingredients you could pack into a tablet,” says Kaufman. “Nowadays, brands are focusing more on capsules for unflavored formats, and chewable tablets and powders for flavored formats. Depending on the active ingredients in the formula and how much of each ingredient, that will determine which is the best format to manufacture a product.” WF