Gelatin or HPMC? It’s time to look beyond the label

There’s no denying that there is a continuing rise in demand for products declaring themselves to be suitable for vegetarians or vegans, driven by common consumer belief that such offerings are somehow better for their health

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.

Oliver Wolf

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 fibre (considered to be safe for human consumption) HPMC is also an additive — otherwise known as E464.

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.

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.

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.

In other words, can a plant-based product that undergoes a chemical process and has an E-number truly fulfil a consumer’s expectation of “clean label” and the health benefits expected of it? Today’s consumers want to be well-informed, and rightly so, but only when armed with the full facts can they make the best decisions.