A Guide to Different Types of Supplements and Their Effectiveness

by | Read time: 5 minutes

Some types of supplements may be more effective than others. But with so many choices—including capsules, tablets, softgels, powders, liquids and gummies—how can you know you’re making the right decision? To start, it helps to understand the difference between supplement forms.

Different Types of Supplements Including Colorful Pills and Capsules on Wooden Spoons on Ivory Surface | Vitacost.com/blog

What are the different types of supplements?

Tablets are solid pills with tightly-packed ingredients. They’re usually smaller and less expensive than other supplements; some are chewable or dissolve in the mouth.

Capsules are made up of two pieces that slide together to hold either a powdered or liquid supplement.

Softgels are single-piece soft pills made of gelatin or vegetable-based ingredients with a liquid supplement inside.

Powders are supplements sold as loose powder that can be mixed with liquid or food.

Liquids come in oil, extract and drink forms that are taken alone or mixed with other beverages.

Gummies resemble gummy candies and are usually marketed as supplements for children; some manufacturers also make supplement chews for adults.

Which supplement form is most effective?

Not all types of supplements are created equal. Gummies, for example, are considered the least effective because they contain lower nutrient levels and lose potency more quickly than other forms. Some minerals may also be excluded to avoid a metallic flavor.

Tablets can be formulated to dissolve right away or release nutrients slowly over time. But tablets don’t always break apart in the digestive tract, so you may not get the full dose of nutrients. Powders present a similar problem if they don’t dissolve completely when mixed with liquid and part of the dose settles to the bottom as sediment.

Capsule absorption may be better than tablets, but capsules hold a smaller amount of supplement per pill. While this doesn’t impact effectiveness, you have to take more pills to get the recommended dose, which could mean spending more on supplements.

Liquids are easier to take and absorb more quickly, which can be helpful for people with compromised digestion or who don’t like to swallow pills. Since they’re less stable than pills, these supplements may lose potency and become less effective over time. Both liquids and powders allow for more customized dosing and make it possible to take high doses of specific supplements when needed.

What about natural vs. synthetic supplements?

Whether or not supplements are produced from food doesn’t appear to affect how well your body absorbs and uses them—in most cases. Synthetic supplement forms are often identical to the forms found in food; even supplements with a “natural” label may contain up to 90% of these “natural-identical” synthetics. However, some synthetic nutrients have different shapes than those you get from food, and it’s still unclear if this affects the way they work.

Whole food, food-based and food-cultured supplements are often marketed as more effective alternatives to synthetics, but there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support these claims. Since recommended daily supplement intakes are based on synthetic nutrients, it can be hard to know if you’re getting the right amount of nutrients from supplements in a whole-food form.

What can interfere with supplement effectiveness?

When choosing effective supplements, though, form may not be as important as ingredients. The FDA doesn’t evaluate dietary supplements before a formula goes to market. Some products may not contain all the nutrients listed on the label, or the types of nutrients in the supplement may not be easy for your body to absorb. Due to this, supplements from different manufacturuters but with the same form and dose may vary in effectiveness.

Some ingredients—called excipients—improve supplement effectiveness. Excipients can make pills easier to swallow and help them dissolve in the digestive tract. Excipients can also keep supplements stable to ensure that nutrients and ingredients don’t degrade during the expected shelf life.

But even with added excipients, proper supplement storage is important. Heat, light and moisture can cause nutrients to break down or dissolve, which is why most supplement labels advise storing them in a “cool, dry place away from sunlight.” Some supplements are best stored in the refrigerator and will say “keep refrigerated” or “refrigerate after opening” on the label instead.

Supplements ingredients to avoid

Artificial preservatives and antioxidants may be added to protect supplements and extend shelf life, but they may cause hypersensitivity reactions like rashes, wheezing or coughing.

Colorings, flavorings and sweeteners may also be a concern. Gummies often contain all three to make the supplements more attractive and better tasting, although these ingredients may also be found in other supplement forms. Some evidence links artificial additives to hyperactivity in children, the group most likely to take gummy supplements on a regular basis. And if you’re watching your sugar intake, be aware that gummies can contain as much as 2 teaspoons of added sugar per serving.

These ingredients aren’t known to impact supplement effectiveness, but you may wish to avoid them due to their potentially negative health effects.

Choosing the best types of supplements for you

Many other factors can affect how well you absorb supplements. The most effective supplement for you is one that allows for maximum absorption based on your health and nutritional requirements.

If you’re not sure which type to choose, ask your doctor or a qualified nutrition professional for guidance. He or she can recommend the best form and how much to take to get the most out of your supplements.

Featured Products

Doctor's Best Pure Vitamin C Powder | Vitacost.com/blog
Vitacost Synergy Women's Once Daily Multivitamin | Vitacost.com/blog
NOW Foods Liquid Multi Iron Free Wild Berry | Vitacost.com/blog
Theresa Sam Houghton

As Chief Nerd at The Modern Health Nerd, Theresa “Sam” Houghton is helping plant-based and better-for-you CPG and DTC brands understand their customers and create better content.

Sam has been writing content for over 12 years and believes in the power of storytelling to connect with customers. She is a graduate of both the Bauman College Nutrition Consultant program and the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate program and uses this expertise to bring a unique perspective to content writing.

Her writing appears regularly on NutritionStudies.org and has been featured on Green Queen Media. She has been a guest on the Vegan Visibility podcast, UnchainedTV's Lunch Break LIVE, Chef AJ Live, the ProteinX Virtual Coffee series, the Behind Their Business podcast and Let's Eat with Mark Samuel. When she’s not writing or cooking, Sam likes to read and study the Bible, cook tasty plant-based food, hang out at farmers markets and knit crazy socks.