Herbal Capsules: How They're Made

An Herbs for Health editor learns how fresh herbs are turned into herbal supplement tablets and capsules.

| May/June 1997

  • Powdered herbs go into the funnel of the encapsulating machine, which can tamp powder into as many as 60,000 empty capsules an hour. Once herbs are ­encapsulated, they are rolled out onto a conveyor belt for ­inspection. Damaged capsules—those with dimples, blemishes, and other flaws—are pulled out before the capsules go to the bottling stage.
    Photographs courtesy of Nature’s Way

One morning late last winter, a wet snow fell over Salt Lake City and the surrounding mountains. The sky was ice-gray, and cars slipped off the highway with the drama of an Olympic skater on a bad night. It would be a good idea, one radio announcer advised, to stay indoors and whip up something good to eat.

Employees at two of the United States’ largest suppliers of herbal supplements were more or less doing that, only the result wasn’t a batch of cookies and a spoon to lick. Instead, these “chefs”, dressed in neatly pressed uniforms and wearing hairnets, plastic gloves, and face masks, were making as many as 60,000 echinacea, ginkgo, and other herbal capsules an hour, or up to 8.5 million little pills a day.

What is encapsulation?

The process of preparing plants and putting them into capsules is known as encapsulation. Capsules are tiny containers measuring less than an inch long and most often made of a clear, see-through gelatin. Capsules made of potato starch and turmeric or other non-animal ingredients also are used but are in less demand.

Herbal supplement makers produce huge numbers of capsules now, but encapsulation is fairly new to the trade. While the pharmaceutical industry has been making capsules for decades, the herb trade has only been at it full force since the 1980s, says Grace Lyn Rich, marketing director for Nature’s Herbs, an herbal supplement supplier to health-food stores based just south of Salt Lake in American Fork.

“We weren’t encapsulating in the 1960s, perhaps because capsules seemed too pharmaceutical or druglike and those who liked herbs wanted to be very separate from that,” Rich says. “By the mid-1970s, the herb trade was still considered ‘on the fringe’, but we were growing. By that time, most people didn’t want to fill their own capsules or concoct their own teas and were looking for an alternative to taking herbs by the spoonful. So we looked at how we could provide easier ways to use herbs.”

Taking a cue from the pharmaceutical industry, her company and others began purchasing encapsulation machines, primarily manual ones that could produce 100 capsules an hour. By the late 1970s, semiautomatic machines were added, speeding up production to 20,000 capsules an hour. By the 1980s, some herbal supplement makers had acquired automatic encapsulators, which can produce up to 60,000 capsules every hour.

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