What are Vegan Capsules made of?
by Benjamin Bunting BA(Hons) PGCert
Written by Ben Bunting: BA(Hons), PGCert. Sport & Exercise Nutrition. L2 Strength & Conditioning Coach.
There's a change brewing in people's attitudes to their food sources. This includes the capsules that contain our supplements.
Traditionally, it may have been considered that those who chose a vegetarian and vegan diet did so because of their concerns over animal welfare.
Additionally, you may be forgiven to think that vegans are more militant in their approach against farming practices, and may have, in some respects damaged the vegan ideology. 
In this article, we shall take a look at changing attitudes towards diet and nutrition, plus the way in which a simple change to a supplement can benefit everyone.
We shall cover the following points:
- Changing Eating Habits
- Health and Veganism
- Veganism and Environment
- HPMC – an alternative to gelatin
- HPMC meaning
- Capsule shell composition
- HPMC Vs. Gelatin
- Side effects
Changing Eating Habits
Can we trust Netflix as a source of reliable and reputable information?
Because they have a lot to answer for.
It seems a month doesn't go by without another hard-hitting and revealing documentary is being discussed across social media and amongst friends.
Along with the fake news scandals littering our TVs, cell phones and laptops, we place an immeasurable amount of trust in not what we read from published peer-written journals or university studies, but what we see and hear on social media.
Worse still, some information spreads further based on prejudices and algorithms that have learned to prioritize content that has received better user engagement in the past.
Therefore, the news that (regardless of truth) that has proved popular amongst readers beforehand is distributed on the news feeds faster and further up the pecking order than other information. 
This means that regardless of how that information is used (it may not actually be believed by readers) it get more air time and has a better chance of having an influence if there's a greater chance of it being reacted to.
However, what has this got to do with vegan supplements I hear you cry?
People's perception of 'going vegan' seems to have changed.
Along with hard-hitting and compelling documentaries such as 'Prescription Thugs' and 'Take Your Pills', additional programs regarding dietary choices such as 'Cowspiracy', 'What the Health' and 'The Game Changers' are having an impact on people's choices, regardless of the balance of evidence.
By that, we mean, that some critics of these documentaries claim that the proof for the producers' argument is cherry-picked to influence viewers. 
Even so, 'The Game Changers' was released in 2019, and in 2020 the UK saw the largest ever uptake of participants for Veganuary which was almost double the uptake of Veganuary 2019. 
Health and Veganism
Originally, those opting for a vegan diet may have been seen as animal rights activists by outsiders, but now there is a growing wave of vegan interest that has breached into the mainstream.
Possibly influenced by the aforementioned documentaries, it is now suggested in reports that people appear to be opting for a 'plant-based' diet not solely for animal welfare but also environmental concerns along with interests in personal health and performance. 
It must be said, watching The Games Changer did appear to offer some compelling evidence to persuade people to lean towards a plant-based diet for their overall health, cherry-picked or not.
So what is the case for switching to a plant-based diet in order to stay healthy?
Documentaries aside, studies do point towards numerous benefits of a plant-based diet.
It is widely accepted by health bodies around the world that 60% of deaths globally are a result of chronic diseases which are exacerbated by a poor diet. 
This claim is further warranted by heath authorities who also state that poor diet is the leading cause of death , and premature death in the US is a result of the 'Western Diet' . A diet that is high in meats, dairy, fried products, refined grains, and sugars while lacking in vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, and beans.
These sort of statistics and data gives us an insight into death rates and the issues that a diet high in meat and dairy. Yet, apart from being told that eating lots of animal protein products can increase the risk of dying from cancer by 400% , what are the actual benefits of eating a plant-based diet?
Plant-Based Diet and Health
It is said that that there are around one and a half billion vegetarians around the world according to a paper published by the Environmental Systems Research Institute. 
Their research also states that 75 million of those are vegetarian by choice. The remaining number can't afford meat, and as such a vegetarian diet is by necessity.
However, traditionally in the Western world, a vegetarian diet may have been seen as the poor option, not monetary wise, but down to lack of appetizing of options that have potentially prevented people from making the switch.
Furthermore, stark misconceptions of eating 'rabbit food' with a lack of protein circulating and big corporations using tactics to push meat on to our plates (backed by government subsidies), it is no wonder meat is the choice of many.  
Veganism has managed to buck this trend, having seen an incredible surge in growth of popularity due to plant-based foods that offer a viable alternative for those hooked on meat.
In the UK alone, the number of people following a vegan diet quadrupled between 2014 and 2019, although it must be noted, those figures are the result of a survey commissioned by the Vegan Society. 
Yet, in the USA, the world's largest market for meat-based foods saw a significant number of people opting to reduce or stop their meat consumption. 
This trend is continued from other sources who are reporting a similar correlation of those choosing to opt for a plant-based menu. 
In addition, straying as far as possible from the rabbit food image, the vegan product food development market is flourishing.
In the UK alone, 16% of new food product launches were vegan in 2018 which was double to the number of releases in 2015 according to Mintel, the data analysts. 
So, let's address the immediate benefits for these people who have decided to look for alternatives?
It is important to remember that the vegan choice eliminates all meats, milk and dairy products, let's not forget, many supplements include some form of meat-based product, including gelatin capsule shells which are sourced from beef or pork.
Bacon and Asbestos
However, by taking away meat sourced foods, you can reduce your intake of carcinogens, yes carcinogens.
That's because processed meats such as bacon are classified in the same category as cigarettes, alcohol, and asbestos!
Even red meat is classed as a carcinogen, and reducing your intake of both can reduce your risk of colorectal cancer , and switching vegan can also reduce the risk of prostate cancer by 35%. 
Yet, there is an unequivocal conclusion by a huge number of scientists that in order to reduce the overall risk of death we must eat more fruits, seeds, nuts, vegetables, and whole grains. 
If this is starting to sound like an anti-drug lecture, you may be interested to know that those processed meat products are responsible for more deaths per year than illicit drug use. 
Cigarettes Versus Diet
Then there are the statistics that seem more akin to the warning found on cigarette packaging.
Just one meat-based meal can reduce the effectiveness of our arteries and blood flow by up to 40% within 2 hours of consumption. 
This then leads us to the consensus among health authorities across the globe that believe a poor diet is responsible for more deaths than smoking. 
This is down to those refined sugars and carbohydrates found in so many processed foods as well as meat which contributes to cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and the rise of inflammation.  
All of which, are, as you may have guessed, responsible for widespread deaths.
So we know that eating meats, even the 'good' meats like chicken  are bad for our overall health.
So what can a plant-based diet do for our health?
Does it just reduce the risk of chronic disease by default because they're omitted from our diet or do plant-based foods actually encourage good health?
Let's start off with the very beginnings of life. Not the big bang, but pregnancy.
The developing baby feeds from its mother. This process will form the basis of that baby's life.
Therefore, the general consensus is that a diet inclusive of meats is required to obtain all of the required nutrients and minerals that humans need to grow and develop.
So it is promising to read that both the American Dietetic Association and the US Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Human Services' Dietary Guidelines are safe for pregnancy and lactation.  
The key to this is awareness of the nutrients required and then included within the diet through food choices.
It is also key to note that those who make an informed choice to lead a plant-based diet, not through economic restrictions nor religious beliefs, increases the probability of a nutritionally balanced intake according to studies. 
Additional observations of those who lead a plant-based diet while pregnant and lactation saw that they did consume a well calculated and high intake of macro and micronutrients but also had a lower body mass index (BMI) score while seeing a reduced chance of being overweight years after giving birth.  
Further evidence also points towards plant-based diets that are rich in fiber and low in saturated fat being protective against poor pregnancy outcomes, with conclusions that a plant-based diet that is well structured will not have a lesser effect on child health than one inclusive of meats. 
We asked ourselves whether a plant-based diet promotes good health, or if omitting meat sourced foods merely reduce the chances of developing chronic illnesses because there is a big difference between the two positions.
However, there are some startling benefits that may make you even consider your next meal.
Scientific research involving a large database of people concluded that a vegan diet reduces the chances of developing type 2 diabetes by 23%. 
It has been estimated that 20% of all deaths globally could potentially be avoided if people started eating more unrefined plant-based foods. 
According to a report published in the American Heart Journal, there is a positive correlation between plant-based diets and a reduced risk of death caused by cardiovascular disease. The report also adds that there is a reduced risk of premature death. 
These results could be linked to the reduced blood pressure that vegans experience  which in turn could be linked to the reduced cholesterol levels that vegans have when compared to their meat-eating peers. 
Along with less cholesterol, there's also less weight carried among vegans, as is reported in the Journal for Nutrition and Diabetes. 
Let's bear in mind that cardiovascular diseases which include heart disease, strokes and high blood pressure as the world's biggest killer and it affects 50% of US citizens if statistics issued by the American Heart Association are anything to be believed. 
So what is more surprising is that a plant-based vegan diet is actually beneficial towards your cardiovascular health. It actually improves your blood flow, artery function and reduces inflammation. 
Better still, considering the impact that cardiovascular diseases have on society, a plant-based diet is the only dietary method of reversing cardiovascular disease. This gives people a much better chance of surviving, as proven by science.  
As you can see, there are some astounding health-related benefits when opting to go vegan.
Those who stick to vegan diets tend to intake higher amounts of vitamins and minerals while consuming fewer calories, saturated fats, and cholesterol.
The diet is high in protective nutrients and phytochemicals which contribute towards reducing chronic disease. 
It may come as no surprise to learn that with an increase of blood flow and artery function, those sticking to a vegan diet can experience enhanced physical performance.
One theory for those against a plant-based diet is that vegans simply cannot get enough proteins and amino acids which can inhibit muscle growth and repair, which would, in turn, have a negative effect on athletic performance.
Yet, a recent study from 2016 contradicts this belief. This study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Nutrition found no evidence that vegans were deficient in either. 
It is recommended that those looking to opt-out of meat should eat a variety of protein-rich alternatives such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, split peas, and soy products like we have outlined, here. 
Likewise, those that reduce carbohydrates to control their weight are missing out on our body's preferred fuel, which mainly comes from plant sources such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, not animal products. 
It is carbohydrates that produce quick energy which will fuel your fitness sessions and physical performance when out on the field.
The importance of carbohydrates and the implications of restricting their intake has been widely reported and it is recommended that athletes consume a diet high in carbohydrates.  
Furthermore, carbohydrates play an important role in the operation of the Central Nervous System.
If you restrict the intake of carbohydrates you can then negatively affect concentration, motor skills, perceptions of fatigue. 
We already mentioned improved blood flow and artery function in the health benefits of a plant-based diet.
This is imperative for improved sporting performance. 
Therefore, it is worth noting that the British Journal of Nutrition published the results of a study that identified vegetarians to having less thick blood than the control group, this demonstrates a lower risk for cardiovascular disease.
Furthermore, those with a stricter avoidance of meat products gained better results. 
Then there are plant products such as beets that were widely used and documented by Olympic Athletes at the London 2012 games which are proven to dilate blood vessels, again increasing that ever-important blood flow. 
In studies, these benefits have proven to enable athletes to produce a higher output than previous but with the same amount of effort. 
Regardless of your discipline, this results in a better performance. 
Need an example? How about when Nate Diaz rocked up to face Connor McGregor in UFC 196 as an unknown and won the fight against all of the odds?
Nate Diaz is vegan, and he is not alone. There are lots of household winning athletes that are vegans such as Lewis Hamilton, Venus Williams, Scott Jurek, Jermain Defoe and many more.
This, it is clear, that if you want to live a healthy and sustained life or even a competitive career, reducing or eliminating meats and dairy while ensuring you consume all the right plant-based nutrients is a positive step forward. 
Veganism and Environment
There's no denying the surge in those looking to reduce their meat intake.
The main key driving points appear to be animal welfare, health, and the environment.
However, it may be quite difficult to understand the wide-scale impact that industrial animal farming has on the environment.
Again, these popular documentaries do well to highlight the issue, particularly 'What the Health' that was aired in 2017.
Not only did this documentary appear to highlight some very unscrupulous funding tactics between those organizations established to care and help manage chronic diseases and the meat industry along with pharmaceutical companies.
The documentary also briefly touched upon the environmental impact and how North Carolina is more populated by farmed pigs than humans. 
Pigs produce far more waste than people, and managing this is becoming a large-scale health risk that places people in the surrounding areas at a higher risk of asthma and hypertension. 
Apart from the risk of spreading disease and flooding localized areas with manure, the impact that industrial meat farming is worrying.
There is no mistaking that climate change is never far from news reporters' lips. We are in a period of change, with risks of extreme weather patterns, rising levels of seawater and, ironically, food shortages. 
One significant contributor towards global warming is animal farming, so we are in a position whereby mass and industrialized cattle farming is directly linked to climate change which is contributing to food shortages.
There is overwhelming evidence and concern over the impact that animal farming has on the plant, and there are some worrying statistics that have been outlined by Berkeley, The University of California. 
- To produce 1 hamburger requires 660 gallons (3000 liters) of water.
- Up to 20 pounds (9kgs) of corn for 1 pound of beef.
- 2500 cows produce the same waste as a city of 411,000 people.
- Creates 8% of greenhouse gas emissions
- Cattle consume 36% of crops grown globally
- The production of 1 hamburger requires 74.5 feet of grazing land contributing to mass deforestation.
- Animal farming uses 37% of the landmass and 70% of the global resources of freshwater.
There has also been further modeling among scientists to understand what the situation will be in 2005.
The results and estimations based on current trends are bleak. The projections see an increase in greenhouse gases that would account for 50% of all emissions from animal farming. 
There are also concerns that at the continued exponential rate, it could see the destruction of rainforests and savannah's up to half the size of the United States. 
A damning statistic from an Oxford University study of 2018 saw that animal farming produces as little as 18% of global calories, but to do so requires 83% of the farmland. That's a huge disproportion of resources. 
That's why it may come as no surprise to learn that cattle farming is responsible for the destruction of 91% of the Amazon rainforest. 
There's then little wonder that the United Nations are encouraging more people to eat less meat and dairy products to help save the planet. 
However, it doesn't need to be too drastic, even small changes can amount to a big difference...
If a country, the size of the United Kingdom (c.60m people) just switched to having one vegan meal per week it would have roughly the same environmental benefit as taking 16 million cars off the road! That's giving meat up for just one meal per week. 
This has stimulated the path for a movement called 'Meatless Monday'. This encourages people to go meat-free for just one day per week to help reduce their carbon footprint. Doing so can help reduce 1 ton of carbon dioxide emissions. 
That's the equivalent of carbon dioxide emission from driving over 2,200 miles.
Therefore, as we can see and read, major benefits to your health and the environment can start with skipping meat from just one meal per week and even more so by skipping meat for just one day per week.
HPMC – An Alternative to Gelatin
With these concerns at light, it is sometimes overlooked how deep our dependency on meat products run.
Many supplement capsules are made of a by-product of meat – gelatin. It is commonly bovine sourced, which is from a cow and is made up of collagen which is a constitute of the skin or bone.
Gelatin is popular because of a number of factors. For a start, it is the most cost-effective option on the market. 
Hard gelatin capsules are also very stable and have a high moisture uptake, which helps protect the contents and prevents deterioration. 
However, there is an alternative to gelatin and its animal origins.
An alternative that is often classified as both Kosher and Halal, and it is completely free from meat.
The beauty of this alternative is that it performs very similar to gelatin capsules, looks very similar and isn't a radical alternative full of compromises as sometimes vegan options are seen. 
They are often called plant-caps, or more specifically hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC).
Moreover, this means it is vegan-friendly and suitable for those following religious diets or wants to have less impact on the environment, as well as considering their health.
Vegan Capsule Shell Composition
HPMC capsules are biodegradable and water-soluble.
Capsules are made up of vegetable cellulose and are 100% natural which is free from preservatives, wheat, gluten, starch or animal products.
Cellulose is a molecule made up of a large amount of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, it is found in plant cell walls and helps them maintain rigidity.
Cellulose isn't digested by humans but is an important fiber, and it is an important addition to the human diet. 
This pure cellulose is usually made from pine of poplar and observations of its effects under clinical study are very similar to gelatin capsules. 
HPMC Versus Gelatin Capsules
A study published in the Japanese Journal of Pharmaceutical Health Care and Sciences compared the dissolution properties of HPMC capsules against gelatin capsules.
They varied the conditions and timescales at which the capsule shells were exposed to prior to the tests.
The gelatin capsules were far more susceptible to the varying conditions than the HPMC capsules which demonstrated no delay in dissolution. 
HPMC is extremely biocompatible, easy to process, eco-friendly and low toxicity, making them a prime candidate for pharmaceutical applications. 
Furthermore, gelatin capsules require a presence of 12-16% moisture to maintain rigidity. Whereas HPMC capsules are less dependent on moisture, therefore in even the driest conditions, HPMC capsule shells are resistant to breaking and cracking.
However, if the moisture becomes too high, the gelatin capsule will become sticky. Try holding one in the palm of your warm hand.
Because HPMC capsules do not need to draw moisture in from the air to maintain their rigidity and function, there's then less risk of moisture transfer to the contents of the capsule. 
You may have seen this before, where the powder looks to have been clumped together or have stuck to the inside of the capsule.
HPMC Side Effects
HPMC capsules are odorless and tasteless. They are fibrous, its cellulose composition is widely used in the food industry which is approved by the FDA and as a food additive in the EU.
It is considered safe to be ingested by humans at a ratio of 5mg per kilogram of bodyweight. Therefore a person weighing 90kg could ingest 450mg without any unwanted or adverse side effects experienced. 
It is estimated that the current consumption per person is actually far less at just 0.047mg per kilogram.
In addition, it is reported by the National Organic Standards Board Advisory Panel that HPMC used in food has no nutritional impact on the quality of food and there aren't any adverse toxicological effects.
The report also concluded that HPMC was effective at “...delivering pharmaceuticals, supplements, and herbs or liquid extracts in 282 a method that preserves activity and stability of the product...” 
These recommendations were also echoed by the Journal of The American College of Toxicology.
Their final safety assessment report of HPMC stated that capsules pass through the gastrointestinal tract unchanged following oral administration.
Across numerous studies, oral HPMC was found to be practically non-toxic and overall safe to use. 
Vegan Capsules Conclusion
In terms of production, safety, and costs, gelatin capsules are a well-known entity.
And, like the shift from internal combustion engines to electric, there's still going to be some uncertainty and reluctance from some parties.
After all, why move from a proven process and product?
Why try moving forward when what's already tried, tested and readily available fulfills the demand?
HPMC is making a compelling case, at present, it is more expensive to produce than the widely available collagen, but the synthetic capsules offer some convincing benefits and reasons why they should be used.
They offer lower moisture content and they do not promote the transfer of moisture, as a result, these cellulose capsules are more stable in a wider range of environments.
To add to this, they are also very safe and suitable for a broader section of society.
However, let's look further than this.
Although widely used and accepted as safe, there are reports that gelatin capsules may cause an allergic reaction in some people, and there are instances where it may cause heartburn, bloating and belching. 
Yet, an important point or points to consider are the environmental implications.
Yes, gelatin is a by-product of the meat industry, and the meat industry as we have learned has a significant impact on the global environment.
A significant problem with gelatin processes is the waste effluents generated. It creates a high biological oxygen demand and the waste can be acidic or alkaline, in some cases chromium contaminated waste can be the end result.
It is reported that source leather from cows (just like we source gelatin from cattle) is almost 3 times as harmful to the environment than synthetic vegan leather with wool being twice as harmful to the environment than polyester. 
Then there are the widely documented risks of consuming meat products, while the risks are comparatively low with gelatin, the argument and the benefits for vegan plant caps are stronger than ever.
This is why, at Military Muscle, when all of the arguments and evidence was put in front of us, we decided to make the important step of evolving and ensure that not only did we make the change to switch to vegan plant capsules, we ensured that all of our ingredients are vegan.
This way, we can all benefit.
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