There is unquestionably a rumour that persists in the natural health world involving the universal superiority of supplements when they are in a liquid form, and conversely universal inferiority in a tablet. “I found my tablet in the toilet” is the common urban legend.

In reality the subject is far more complex, there really is no superior form; each has its advantages and disadvantages relative to the product in question. Before we even get started with our pros and cons checklist, let’s discuss a few things about tablets and capsules. In Canada, the NHPD (Health Canada’s Natural Health Product Directorate), requires companies to undergo dissolution tests for capsules and tablets; a guarantee that both will disintegrate into solution within an appropriate amount of time. Furthermore, some tablets are literally used to make small doses of nutrients (e.g. 200mcg of chromium) into something that’s big enough to pick up without resorting to a microscope and a pair of fine tweezers. In these cases, the tablet dissolves very readily, sometimes right on the tip of your tongue. As a general rule of thumb, liquids contain pre-dissolved ingredients, capsules dissolve in less than 8 minutes and tablets in less than 45 minutes (worst case scenario) as required by GMP manufacturing standards.

“I’ve put my tablet in a bowl of water and it just sits there forever”, is a phrase we hear often. “I put my capsule in a blend of water and vinegar to simulate stomach acid” say others, “and it didn’t completely dissolve”. These at-home-experiments are the mark of a real dedicated health advocate and my hat goes off to them for their efforts. But allow me to bust this myth if I may. To those of you who are reading this, I would like you to go into the fridge and grab a celery stick, chicken cube, apple slice, lima bean etc (almost any whole food will do) and put it in a cup of water. Unsurprisingly, you will notice that although the food may be a tad soggier than originally, it is still intact. Those of you who routinely soak your beans, rice or potatoes before cooking shouldn’t be too surprised. This simple food experiment and the “capsule in the water” experiments share a remarkable parallel – neither capsule nor food can be digested by water (or vinegar and water) because your digestive system is several orders of magnitude more capable than we are giving it credit.

An experiment that simulates salivary amylase and lipase, hydrochloric acid at a pH of ~1-3, mechanical knocking action of food within the stomach, peristalsis within the intestinal tract, pancreatic enzymes, bile, and probiotic bacteria will do the job when water simply fails. Such a laboratory device is called a tablet dissolution apparatus, and quality manufacturers use it. Capsules are so simple in fact that their outer shell is a basic layer of gelatin….about as easy to digest as a bite of Jello. Water and vinegar won’t do, but pancreatic protease will make short work of even the most stubborn capsules.

Okay, time for a brief list of pros and cons. Keep in mind that all of these are only potential pros and cons, and each one is dependent on the exact product in question:

LIQUIDS

Pros:

Pre-dissolved, little digestion required

Easy to administer in children, or those with swallowing difficulties

Can (but not always) provide superior value. In some cases a single teaspoon is equivalent to several capsules of the same product.

Cons:

Can (but not always) provide inferior value. Liquids are often pre-diluted, and as such a dry powder, capsule, or tablet will provide a higher concentration of nutrients

Shelf-life is limited and storage conditions are more stringent

CAPSULES

Pros:

Short digestion time, better than tablets in most cases

Easy to swallow

Great shelf life

Cons:

More expensive than tablets to manufacture

Cannot be compacted like tablets so they are often less dense (offer less nutrients per capsule) than a tablet would

TABLETS

Pros:

Are inexpensive to produce

Are capable of containing a wide range of dosages from the very small to the very large

More condensed than capsules, and typically offer higher dosage per serving

Cons:

Can be more difficult to swallow

Don’t digest as quickly as capsules or liquids

We hope this brief article has highlighted some of misconceptions regarding capsules, tablets and liquids. Like everything in nutrition, there is never a single generalization that can apply. Want to learn more? We’d be happy to help as always!