With a plethora of vitamin sprays and gels entering the supplement market, we ask, are they better than the tablet form? Top Santé investigates.
THE CASE FOR LIQUID SUPPLEMENTS
The main reason liquids, sprays or powders are said to be better than pills is absorption. To ensure you get all the nutrients within a pill-based supplement, that tablet has to fully dissolve in your stomach within about 30 minutes to ensure the nutrients get to your intestine in a form that can be absorbed.
Every company tests this, but even so, independent tests in the US found around five per cent of tablets didn’t dissolve effectively – and the larger the pill the more likely this was.
Because liquids and dissolved powders are already broken down, the theory is that they might be more bioavailable than pills. The key word here though is ‘might’. ‘I’m not aware of independent trials that prove this, as hydrochloric acid (stomach acid) is pretty powerful and will break down a well-formulated tablet,’ says nutritionist Ian Marber.
The evidence on oral sprays, which see nutrients absorbed through the thin skin of the mouth, however, does show they work at least as well as tablets.
A study in 2003 compared people using sublingual B12 (which absorbs under the tongue) versus a B complex pill. It found that both groups had the same rise in B12 levels at the trial’s end. Another trial on vitamin D found sprays were more effective than pills. In this study levels increased twice as much in people using a spray for 30 days compared to those using a tablet.
Better for those with impaired digestion:
There are some groups of people for whom non-pill supplements might work better. ‘Levels of hydrochloric acid in your stomach fall as you get older. So this might mean that non-pill supplements work better in the elderly,’ says Ian Marber.
‘ If you’re taking drugs such as PPIs that lower levels of stomach acid, you might also find you do better with a non-pill formulation,’ he adds.
They might also be better if you also have an issue where your gut doesn’t absorb as effectively as it might. This can be the case if you have coeliac or Crohn’s disease or after bariatric surgery. In the vitamin D trial, those with absorption issues saw levels rise by 2.6 times more from the spray than the pill.
Avoiding the gut or limiting time spent in it may have other benefits. Some forms of magnesium, for example, can upset the gastrointestinal tract. The theory is that by taking them in a liquid form, they spend less time there and may be less likely to trigger problems.
Magnesium can also enter your system through your skin and this can raise levels higher than a traditional pill (read this feature for more on the benefits of magnesium).
THE CASE FOR TABLETS
Taste and formulation:
‘You can taste the ingredients in liquids and powders more than you can in a tablet. This can affect how much of a nutrient manufacturers might want to put into them,’ says nutritionist Suzie Sawyer (nutritionlifestyle.co.uk).
‘Minerals, for example, have a strong metallic taste. B vitamins are very yeasty.’ This, says Suzie, might mean lower doses are used so as not to put off customers due to the taste. Some nutrients might be left out altogether.
It’s also a fairly limited market right now and not every nutrient is available in a non-pill form. Most no-pill supplements are single dose nutrients such as vitamin C or D. This is good for tackling specific deficiencies but not so good for the general health insurance that you get with a multi-vit.
With a tablet, so long as you take it properly, you know exactly how much you’re getting. However, liquids and sprays can be tricky to measure. Also, not mixing powders effectively could also see a lot left on the bottom of the cup. This reduces the dose you take in.
‘Liquids can also be less stable than tablets,’ says pharmacist Mike Wakeman from the Health Supplement Information Service. ‘They can go off much faster so it’s important that you use them quickly and store them well.’