Stepping into the realm of dietary/nutritional supplements these days can be overwhelming. Just walk down the nutrition aisle in any store and you’re greeted with shelves and shelves of pill bottles staring at you, labels-first, all promising to make you feel healthy and normal again.
But how can you be sure you’re getting what you’re paying for?
Are you Confident in your nutritional supplements?
Tablets, coated pills, powders, chewables - while there are several different forms these supplements come in, let’s take a look at one of the fastest growing markets right now - liquid supplements - and compare them to capsules and other solid forms of supplements claiming to offer similar results.
Facts About the Supplement Industry
Over the years, the landscape of the medical industry has made a move toward safer, more natural solutions. Throughout the 90’s, for example, the use of herbal products had expanded about 380%(1).
These days, it seems like more people are talking about herbal and natural remedies than ever before - while hard, prescription medications are still very prominent, a recent study shows that 80%(2) of people around the world are reliant on herbal medicinal supplements for their health.
As the market expands, nutritional supplement companies are competitively discovering different ways to give their products an edge over the others. These companies are asking themselves “how can I make my products stand out in a sea of competitors?”
The answer: To make an effective product that will do what it claims it does, satisfy its customers, and prove to its customers that these products are worth coming back to.
With that in mind, we need to quickly address that dietary supplements are victim of a common misconception:
“Expensive” Bathroom Trips
Concerned with wasting money, a lot of people believe that the nutritional substances contained in these supplements are never absorbed and essentially end up in the toilet without serving their purpose - this scenario being responsible for the phrase “expensive pee.” This happens because too often people will notice more color in their urine than usual following the use of a supplement and come to the fairly reasonable conclusion that the nutritional substances had passed through their system very quickly without absorbing any of the benefits.
This is not how it works.
If you are noticing more color in your urine than usual following the use of a supplement, it likely means that your body has processed the substances ingested (most likely containing vitamin B2) - the only way a supplement can change urine color is if it has been digested and processed by the liver(3).
Bioavailability and Absorption
Let’s also address another common point of confusion regarding the body’s ability to process nutrients - There are two main terms to keep in mind when consuming food, drinks, or a supplement: Bioavailability and absorption.
According to The Wallach Files(4), (referring to Dr. Joel Wallach, a naturopathic doctor who had a key role in the liquid vitamin market):
“Bioavailability is defined as the proportion of a nutrient in food that can be absorbed and made available for use and storage; absorption is the physiological process that permits passage of a dietary nutrient from the intestinal lumen to the body fluids and tissues.”
So - bioavailability relates to the food or the substance consumed and what it can offer you.
Absorption concerns how your body takes in nutrients.
Certain foods are more bioavailable than others. If two different foods both contain 10g of protein, and one of them has a bioavailability of 50% and the other has a bioavailability of 80%, you can absorb up to 5g of protein in the first example, and up to 8g of protein in the latter.
And that’s if the absorption of these substances are optimized.
Which brings us to…
Why Are Liquid Supplements So Popular?
As mentioned before, the market of liquid supplements is growing rapidly. According to FactMR.com(5), “The liquid dietary supplements market is poised to grow to more than $42 billion in the year 2022 from a value of under $30 billion in 2017.”
This means that more and more people have discovered the advantages of liquid dietary supplements, with the market expected to expand even more in the years to come.
So why is it that so many people are turning to liquid supplements?
Because it’s already in a liquid form, not only will some of the nutrients begin absorption immediately in the mouth, the entire absorption process of an ingested liquid only takes a few minutes. A substance consumed as a liquid is essentially already broken down and requires very little digestion. Therefore, the absorption process is not slowed down by a long digestive process, meaning the effects of the supplement will kick in quicker than would a non-liquid supplement, which does require the breaking down process of digestion before the nutrients can even be absorbed.
To summarize, not only will the nutrients in a liquid substance start to take effect quicker, but much more of the nutritional benefits offered in liquid form can be utilized by the body compared to those consumed as a solid.
So if you are among those who are concerned about wasting money - liquid supplements are where to go to get more bang for your buck.
Now, the body can only process a certain amount of a substance at once, so a quicker absorption time isn’t always the best piece of criteria to judge your supplements unless you are in a position where an instant effect is useful (immediately relieving pain is a good example).
But unlike a solid supplement, a liquid supplement can be taken as slowly or as quickly as desired - it can be sipped. The amount of the dosage for liquids is much more controllable than, say, a pill, which can only be swallowed all at once. This offers the flexibility in liquid supplements of choosing relief now, later, or a combination of both.
And because the body can only process so much of a substance at a time, more nutrients can be absorbed if it is diluted in more water - by taking a supplement with a higher concentration of water, the body will take more time processing that water, allowing your body the time to process the nutritional substances at a more manageable rate, which means less of that substance will be passed through the digestive system and end up in the toilet.
According to Gerhard N. Schrauzer, D. Sc. FACN:
“In order not to overwhelm the available absorption capacity, vitamins and minerals should be supplemented at low concentrations over a period of time rather than suddenly. These conditions are more easily met with liquid than with solid supplements(6).”
We’re mostly familiar with supplements in the form of those chalky tablet pills. Tylenol and Centrum, for example, most often appear in this format.
As the market evolved, the science behind the industry evolved as well, and the manufacturers and distributors of supplements and medical drugs learned they could reach and help more people by offering more options as far as consumption.
Not everyone can swallow a pill very easily, for example. Companies of pills that target ailments like headaches and allergy relief learned they could appeal to more people by offering “instant relief” with fast-acting agents. And tasty chewables are available for children.
Capsules are a variant of solid pills. In a sense, capsules and softgels were essentially the predecessors to modern liquid supplements - they were scientifically designed to make medicine consumption easier and more effective.
In capsules, a two-part gelatin film encases either powder, or, in the case of softgels, liquids or oils (like fish oil pills). Gelatin is a protein made from animal products. A non-gelatin casing is offered for capsules for those not willing to consume animal byproducts, but they are less common and require a little bit of searching for in stores. Capsules are a bit smoother and usually easier to swallow than a typical pill. Also, since capsules usually contain powders, you can break apart the capsule and only take a little if you like, or mix it into food or a drink.
Space is limited in capsules, however, and they cannot offer the sheer quantity of nutrients that can be dissolved into a liquid.
Capsules tend to cost more than your typical pill, too. The casing of a capsule adds cost to the manufacturer, and because the contents of a capsule are not perfectly sealed (unless more money is spent), the shelf life of these pills tends to be lower, as well.
There are benefits capsules have over tablets - they’re easier to swallow and can be manufactured to be instant-acting or act on a delay - but tablets are compressed powders that can fit more beneficial substances into pill form than the capsules which usually hold a loose powder.
And most solid supplements must be made to be bioavailable by including agents that help break down the substances into an absorbable form - but this takes up the limited space within the pill and adds cost to the manufacturers(7).
Now, this is something liquid supplements can avoid altogether. And tablets can essentially get away with it, too, since they’re so efficient with space, they can include these agents without sacrificing much space dedicated to beneficial substances.
But, because the loose contents are not so tightly packed, capsules utilize much less space within their casing and still must use up precious room for these additives.
And then there are softgels; another form of capsule pills, except these contain liquids or oils. Their shelf lives are better than capsules, since they are completely sealed. But you have no control over how much of a softgel you take - a softgel is only meant to be taken all at once.
There are so many options available to consumers who are looking for different things. Do your research and learn what’s right for your body.
Who knows… Maybe you’ve already tried the right supplement for your body, but never experienced the positive effects because absorption was so inefficient.
You might find that pills and solid forms of supplements work for you, but liquid supplements may offer the changes you’ve been looking for...
… People with digestive problems should probably use liquid supplements since they are easiest to absorb/digest, for example.
Liquid supplements typically need to be refrigerated to remain fresh, and sometimes the beneficial contents can settle at the bottom of the bottle (but this is easily fixed with a quick shake of the bottle).
If you are taking capsule or otherwise solid supplements - try experimenting with the same supplements but in liquid form and see what the difference feels like for you.
***This article is intended to provide information and general education only - please don’t use this information to diagnose, treat, or cure any illness or medical condition, or as a substitute for medical advice.***
Keep your eyes out for the next article.
To your health,
-Chris Ford - Director of Health Research